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in 2012 with funding from 

LYRASIS IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 


Bookj by Howard Moss 




KEATS (Editor) 




Marcel Proust 



The author gratefully acknowledges permission 
granted by Random House, Inc., to quote from the 
works of Marcel Proust, copyright 1924, 1925, 1927, 
1929, 1930, 1932, and renewed 195 1, 1952, 1955, 
1956, 1957, 1959 by Random House, Inc. 

A shorter version of Chapter One appeared in the 
Summer 1962 issue of The Sewanee Review, copy- 
right © 1962 by The University of the South. 

© Howard Moss 1962 

All rights reserved — no part of this book may be re- 
produced in any form without permission in writing 
from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes 
to quote brief passages in connection with a review 
written for inclusion in a magazine or newspap 


The Macmillan Company, New York 
Collier-Macmillan Canada Ltd., Gait, Ontario 
Divisions of The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company 

Printed in the United States of America 

Library of Congress catalog card number: 62-1 85 11 

For Elizabeth Bowen 

This book is based on Remembrance of Things Past, the 
English translation of Proust's A la Recherche du temps 
perdu. The first six volumes were translated by C. K. Scott 
Moncrieff, the seventh by Frederick A. Blossom. The titles 
in English and their original French equivalents follow: 

Swann's Way (Du Cote de chez Swann) 
Within a Budding Grove (A VOmbre des jeunes filles 
en fleurs) 

The Guermantes Way (Le Cote de Guermantes) 
Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe) 

The Captive (La Prisonniere) 

The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue) 

The Past Recaptured (Le Temps retrouve) 

The abbreviations in the text follow the English titles 
consecutively of The Modern Library edition in seven 
volumes published by Random House. When a volume 
is divided into tw^o sections, Roman numerals indicate 
the section. Arabic numerals indicate the page. Swann's 
Way: SW. Within a Budding Grove: WBG I and WBG II. 
The Guermantes Way: GW I and GW II. Cities of the 
Plain: CP I and CP II. The Captive: C I and C 11. The 
Sweet Cheat Gone: SCG. The Past Recaptured: PR. 


I The Two Ways [i] 

"Everything, indeed, is at least twofold. 

II The Gardens [19] 

"I had already drawn from the visible stratagems of 
flowers a conclusion that bore upon a whole unconscious 
element of literary work. . . ." 

Ill The Windows [43] 

"My curiosity emboldening me by degrees, I went down 
to the ground-floor window, which also stood open 
with its shutters ajar." 



IV The Parties [63] 

"For every death simplifies existence for others, reUeves 
them of the need of scrupulously showing their grati- 
tude or the obligation to pay calls." 

V The Steeples [87] 

". . . an hour is a vase . . ." 

VI The Way [105] 

"... the only true paradise is always the paradise we 
have lost." 



: The Two Ways 

"Everything, indeed, is at least twofold." 

(SCG 362) 


.emembrance of Things Past is more than a novel; 
it is a work in which a single person's life is transformed 
into a mythology, with its own pantheon of gods, its own 
religious rituals, and its own moral laws. A total vision, 
it does not rely on any system outside itself for support. 
It is as if Dante had set out to write the Paradiso and the 
Inferno utilizing only the facts of his own existence with- 
out any reference to Christianity. Marcel, the narrator, 



has his equivalent of Vergil — Swann. But Swann's signifi- 
cance is created by Proust and is not historical. With 
Proust, we are in the presence of a unique being — not 
someone who is transcribing a reality created by God, but 
one who is a god himself. Other novelists describe or in- 
vent worlds. Remembrance of Things Past is an entire 
universe created and interpreted by Marcel Proust. 

It is the story of how a little boy becomes a writer. That 
is the first — and last — simple statement that can be made 
about it. A truer definition is impossibly complicated: it 
is the biography of a novelist written by its subject, who 
has decided to write a novel instead of an autobiography, 
and whose only novel is the biography he is writing. A 
book in which real people, natural objects, and institutions 
appear, yet resorting, like a fairy tale, to deception to 
reach the truth. Remembrance of Things Past is a house 
of mirrors. Scenes are mapped out and actions take place. 
Resembling a novel, it is not what the French would call a 
roman or what we would call a "story," and uniquely 
combines the qualities of the epic and the lyric. Though 
its characters end up as heroes, it is completely metaphor- 
ical. It is the first epic ever written whose battles are mostly 
internal; yet those battles are merely the minor actions 
in a gigantic poem. Proust put everything he knew into 
it — a mistake made only by amateur writers and very great 
ones. The narrator of Proust's novel is named Marcel, but 
he is not Proust. And that is where the deception begins. 

In the original complication of having the narrator and 



the author of Remembrance of Things Past bear the same 
Christian name, Proust begins the process of merging ap- 
pearance and reality in order that he may, ultimately, 
separate them. This doubling of names makes us aware 
that we are reading a novel that is, in some way, based on 
fact; it warns us simultaneously that appearances can be 
deceiving. This strange duality, connecting and yet sever- 
ing the "I" of the book from the "I" of its creator, sug- 
gests its theme: It is nothing less than the rescuing of the 
self from the oblivion of time. There is an "I" that needs 
to be rescued; there is an "I" that does the rescuing. In- 
sofar as each successfully acts out his role, the "Marcel" 
of Proust's narrator more cleverly disguises himself than 
any other name possibly could. The fictional Marcel be- 
comes aware of the need of salvation only as he turns into 
the Marcel who creates him. And it is in the process of 
that creation that salvation exists. It is a difficult and all- 
important strategy. At the same time as this duality fore- 
shadows the theme of the novel, another duality becomes 
the basic structural device of the work. 

As a child. Marcel spends his Easter vacations at his 
Aunt Leonie's country house in Combray. Her house is 
so situated that doors on opposite sides lead to one or 
the other of two "ways" — two mutually exclusive walks 
that Marcel may take into the countryside. One of these 
ways is the "Meseglise way," where Swann's house, Tan- 
sonville, is located, and w^here Marcel first sees Swann's 



daughter, Gilberte, when they are both young. The other 
way is the "Guermantes way," the domain of the Guer- 
mantes family, the feudal sovereigns of Combray and the 
neighboring districts ever since the Middle Ages. The 
Meseglise way — or Swarm's way— is a plain. The Guer- 
mantes way is river land. Both these ways are real, but 
share, in common, an ideality which, because of the pecul- 
iar time scheme of Proust's novel, is the product of mem- 
ory and anticipation acting together: 

. . . during the whole of my boyhood, if Meseglise was to me 
something as inaccessible as the horizon, which remained hid- 
den from sight, however far one went, by the folds of a coun- 
try which no longer bore the least resemblance to the country 
round Combray, Guermantes, on the other hand, meant no 
more than the ultimate goal, ideal rather than real, of the 
"Guermantes way," a sort of abstract geographical term like 
the North Pole or the Equator. And so to "take the Guer- 
mantes way" in order to get to Meseglise, or vice versa, would 
have seemed to me as nonsensical a proceeding as to turn east 
in order to reach the west. Since my father used always to 
speak of the "Meseglise way" as comprising the finest view 
of a plain that he knew anywhere, and of the "Guermantes 
way" as typical of river scenery, I had invested each of them, 
by conceiving them in this way as two distinct entities, with 
that cohesion, that unity which belongs only to figments o£ 
the mind ... I set between them, far more distinctly than 
the mere distance in miles and yards and inches which sep- 
arated one from the other, the distance that there was be- 
tween the two parts of my brain, in which I used to think 
of them, one of those distances of the mind which dme serves 



only to lengthen, which separates things irremediably from 
one another, keeping them for ever upon different planes. 
(SW 191-192) 

The word "way" in English, like the phrase du cote 
in French, has a double meaning. It means, on the one 
hand, a direction, progression, or journey; and on the 
other, an aspect, manner, or style. "Swann's way" and the 
"Guermantes way" are pilgrimages and places; they are 
also modes of living. 

In the course of the book, two sets of characters, two 
different "stories" are associated with each of these ways. 
The first, the Meseglise, is dominated by Swann, the rich 
son of a Jewish stockbroker. Swann is a sensitive dilet- 
tante, a man of fashion, and an intimate of royalty and 
aristocracy. The second, the Guermantes, is the world of 
the Duchesse de Guermantes, and, ultimately, two other 
Guermantes: the Baron de Charlus, her cousin and 
brother-in-law, and Robert Saint-Loup, her nephew. The 
Guermantes family are aristocracy itself; in many cases, 
its members, through birth and the inheritance of titles, 
are the social superiors of European royalty. 

These two ways become, in time, two visions of life's 
possibilities. One is biological — love. The other is social 
— society. Each falls under the domination of the differ- 
entiated "gods" of Marcel's boyhood. Swann's way is the 
way of love; the Duchesse de Guermantes' that of society. 
The crossbreeding between them is richly complicated, 
but they are perceived by Marcel, as a boy, as two distinct 



forces of life. And, as such, they become complementary 
themes in the book. 

As in most novels, these possibilities are developed 
through the gradual revelation of character and through 
the characters' interrelating and conflicting actions. But 
unlike most novels, each w^ay is associated vv^ith major 
metaphors that proliferate as the novel proceeds. The love, 
or biological theme, is enveloped in the metaphor of the 
garden, with its two attendant images, flowers and water. 
The social theme materializes in the concept of a "party" 
— in its literal sense of a gathering together of people, as 
well as its political sense, a group held together by com- 
mon interests, or committed to an idee fixe. Thus the Drey- 
fus case, the major political scandal of Remembrance of 
Things Past, can be considered in the same sense as an 
evening soiree at the Princesse de Guermantes; an implicit 
social ethic is revealed by the behavior of the participants 
in both cases. 

In the "Overture" to Swanns Way, Aunt Leonie's house 
provides the first garden as well as the first party — the 
family dinner Marcel's parents give at which Swann is 
the single guest. This intimate dinner is followed by a 
series of parties and receptions at which most of the social 
life in Proust's novel takes place. Proust places these met- 
aphors and ideas in his "Overture" in the same way that 
Wagner plants his leit-motifs in Tristan. Proust's use of 
the word "overture" is more than merely a literary con- 



vention. It is the choice of a deUberate method. We are 
being introduced to one of the grand operas of Hterature, 
one in which musical construction — the announcement, 
development, and repetition of themes — plays as impor- 
tant a part as the action. 

There is a third "way," but we will not know it until 
we reach the very end of The Past Recaptured, the last 
volume of the novel. It is the way of art and it is slowly 
built up in Proust's re-creation of the work of three char- 
acters who represent it: Vinteuil, the composer, Bergotte, 
the novelist, and Elstir, the painter. (There are other art- 
ists in Proust, like the actresses, Rachel and Berma; Octave, 
a rich, young nonentity at Balbec who turns out later to 
be a talented theatre designer; Dechambre, the pianist; and 
Morel, the violinist. They are none of them creative artists 
in the same sense as Vinteuil, Bergotte, and Elstir, though 
they exemplify Proust's notions about art in various ways. 
Berma, particularly, is important because Marcel learns 
from her that great acting consists in the suppression of 
personality, not its exploitation. Morel has a far more com- 
plex role in the novel than that of being a violinist, though 
there is never any doubt that he is a superb one.) It is 
our narrator Marcel, however, who shows us the process 
by which the enchantments of love and society become 
disenchantments, and are then transformed into art. 

There is another dualism in Remembrance of Things 
Past. In The Past Recaptured, Marcel makes the following 



comment in regard to his plan for the book he is about to 

Soon I was able to show a few sketches. No one understood a 
word. Even those who were favorable to my conception of 
the truths which I intended later to carve within the temple 
congratulated me on having discovered them with a micro- 
scope when I had, on the contrary, used a telescope to per- 
ceive things which, it is true, were very small but situated 
far off and each of them a world in itself. Whereas I had 
sought great laws, they called me one who grubs for petty 
details. (PR 393-394) 

There is, in this statement, an uncharacteristic defen- 
siveness. In truth, Proust reaches for "great laws" through 
"petty details," and he uses, figuratively, both the micro- 
scope and the telescope as instruments of perception. 

The microscope and the telescope share in common 
lenses of magnification. The first deals with the invisibly 
small; the second with the invisibly distant. As such, the 
first is an instrument of space, the second an instrument 
of space-time. When we look at an amoeba under a micro- 
scope, what is minute is merely enlarged. We assume that 
process can be stopped in order to be described. When we 
look at a star through a telescope, an abstract system of 
geometry must be brought into play in order to make 
what we see have meaning, for the star is at a distance 
that has become transformed into time — time no longer 
measurable in terms of human consciousness, such as 



minutes and years, but only in "light years," an abstract 
concept of the mind that does not proceed from the senses. 
Empirical description in the microscope is transformed, 
in the telescope, into conjectual analysis. In the first, we 
observe phenomena; in the second, we try to xmderstand 
the laws that govern them. 

Proust offers for our inspection slide after slide under a 
microscope. Just when we think we have looked most 
closely, he reminds us that what we are looking at is, if 
not false, certainly partial. We have forgotten about time, 
which is altering the specimen under the lens as relent- 
lessly as it is altering the observer. Our eyes glued to the 
aperture, we barely notice that a telescope has been sub- 
stituted for the microscope. 

Like the substance of space-time through which we look 
up at the stars, the forgotten years that lie behind, or the 
unsuspected years that stretch ahead of any moment effect 
the quality of that moment though the perceiver may not 
be aware of it when it is occurring. Process cannot be ar- 
rested, except in death. Even then, it continues in phys- 
ical decomposition, and because the dead are still able to 
provoke changes in the living. Proust attempts to do two 
things at once: to arrest the moment; and to show us 
the moment hurrying on to qualify itself, to contradict 
itself, even to nullify itself. No fact or phenomenon is too 
minute for Proust to examine thoroughly; yet each of 
these examinations is placed in a structure so vast, seen 
from a viewpoint so timeless that what at first appears to 



be a worm's-eye view of reality turns out, in the end, to 
be a dazzling reach of perspective. Like the effect of the 
"zoom" lens of a camera, we start infinitely close to the 
object and find the field of vision increasing in depth, dis- 
tance, and meaning. The microscope-telescope figure is 
uniquely relative, for no matter how large the small may 
be made to appear, it remains, always, in ratio to distance. 
In Proust, we have two analogical metaphors that have 
application to the microscope and the telescope. The magic 
lantern of his boyhood is similar to the microscope. It en- 
larges the image it projects. Windows are analagous to 
the telescope. Though no physical magnification takes 
place, the significance of what is seen by a particular 
viewer is calibrated in exact ratio to the psychological dis- 
tance of the viewer from the scene. The Lesbian seduction 
scene between Mile. Vinteuil and her anonymous friend 
that Marcel sees in the window at Montjouvain has a spe- 
cial meaning for him. That meaning becomes apparent 
only if we draw a triangle connecting it to a scene that 
precedes it in time and another that follows it. The past 
scene is the Combray bedroom scene in which his mother 
withholds her good-night kiss. The future scene is that 
one when, on the train back from La Raspeliere to Balbec, 
Albertine innocently lets Marcel know, for the first time, 
that Mile. Vinteuil's Lesbian friend is also an intimate of 
hers "who has been a mother, a sister to me, with whom I 
spent the happiest years of my life at Trieste, and whom 
for that matter I am expecting to join in a few weeks at 



Cherbourg, when we shall start on our travels together 
. . . and I know Vinteuil's daughter almost as well as I 

know her " (CP II 361-362) (It is of interest that Al- 

bertine's statement, which revives past experiences for 
Marcel and is a premonition of those of the future, should 
in itself contain both a past and a future threat: "... 
with whom I spent . . ." and "whom ... I am expecting 
to join. . . .") In the imaginary triangle connecting these 
three scenes — the Combray bedroom, the Montjouvain 
window, and the train between La Raspeliere and Balbec 
— each corner of the triangle depends on the others. 

Marcel's reaction to Albertine's statement is too intense; 
after having decided to give her up, he does an about-face 
and decides to marry her. It is at that moment we realize 
there is something wrong with our narrator. He is more 
than just a nervous and sensitive young man. He is 
emotionally disabled. His decision makes it necessary to 
re-examine the true meaning of both the Combray bed- 
room scene and the Montjouvain scene, whose significance 
becomes apparent, retrospectively, in the anguish Albert- 
ine's statement causes him. And the import of both scenes 
will shift again when we learn that it is Mile. Vinteuil's 
nameless friend who is responsible for rescuing Vinteuil's 
septet from oblivion. The Montjouvain scene has further 
consequences but it will suffice for the moment to point 
out that what at first was merely descriptive now demands 
interpretation; "petty details" require the application of 
"general laws." The emotional lives of Marcel and Albert- 



ine distinguish them as individuals, but the general laws 
that govern emotional lives transform them into general 
types. Albertine's Lesbian history has the powder to harm 
Marcel precisely because Lesbianism is not singular. 
Marcel's capacity for suffering is the result of his particular 
emotional make-up and is also a form of suffering w^e have 
already seen illustrated in Svi^ann's obsessive jealousy of 

Like the stars, which seem stationary and whose courses 
are relative to the speed of the earth's revolutions and its 
position in the universe, Proust's characters are transfixed 
by the moment and stirred by its relation to past and 
future moments. The relativity of time adds a dimension 
to personality as it does to physics. Proust illustrates this 
by a series of jarring revelations as carefully adjusted as a 
time bomb — in a seven-volume edition of Proust, it takes 
Marcel three volumes to discover that Charlus is a Guer- 
mantes, and one more to find out he is a homosexual. 
Revelation in Proust is intensified by the length of time 
we are made to wait for it, and its power, though it 
appears to increase through difference, actually increases 
through similarity. What appears to be different becomes 
the same, once the specimen has been stained by time. 
The clarity of the lens, the keenness of the vision behind 
it, are trifles by comparison. Personality is by nature in- 
congruous, being a product of time. Time, at any given 
moment, tends to obscure this. Taken as a whole in any 
given lifetime, it reveals it. After the Princesse de Guer- 



mantes' death, Bloch mistakes Mme. Verdurin — the new 
Princesse de Guermantes — for the old one. It is a perfectly 
understandable mistake at the time but not in time. As 
readers, who have followed the process of her evolution, 
we know very well that Princesse de Guermantes who was 
once alive and is now dead. To us, Mme. Verdurin is 
still Mme. Verdurin. 

Proust uses two other methods to demonstrate the 
relativity of time to perception: direct statements about it, 
and indirect shifts in the structure of the novel itself. 
There is one telling example that combines both and 
occurs at that moment when, having told the story of 
Swann and Odette's love affair — which took place before 
he was born — and before he picks the story up again in 
chronological time, the narrator suddenly switches to the 
present. An old man, now (and we had been deluded 
into thinking he was a child!), he goes back to the Bois 
de Boulogne to recapture the days when he would linger 
there to catch a glimpse of Odette: 

The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed 
that Mme. Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at 
the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The 
places that we have known belong only to the litde world 
of space on which we map them for our own convenience. 
None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between 
the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that 
time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a 
particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugi- 
tive, alas, as the years. (SW 6ii) 



If there is a duality in the viewpoint of the novel 
(Marcel, the observer; Marcel, the observed), in its struc- 
ture (the tv^o * ways"), and in its theme (the problem of a 
reality equally perceptible in the opposed dimensions of 
the microscope and the telescope, the present and the 
eternal), there is also a duality in its subject matter in 
plain terms of human consciousness. And that is the 
important distinction Proust makes between "the name" 
and "the place" — or, more appropriately, "the thing," for 
this distinction bears, finally, upon everything. In the 
Proustian universe, nothing is what it first appears to be: 
there is a prevision that attaches itself to the mere name of 
places, people, and events. This early vision is preverbal — 
not involved with the word per se but the sound of the 

To a child, names are magical sounds that precede and 
then identify objects of reality. These must, of necessity, 
be in the immediate vicinity: familial figures, domestic 
objects, personal effects. (This childhood fascination with 
sound is repeated when Marcel is an adult in his descrip- 
tion of the cries of the street hawkers of Paris, the names 
of the railway stops on the "little crawler" that connects 
Balbec with Douville, and his interest in the etymology of 
place names and titles.) The magic of a sounded word 
identifying an object is in direct proportion to the distance 
of the object, for, imagination intervening, the object 
may be shaped to the sound in any number of fantastic 
ways. Thus, though it is his mother's kiss Marcel ex- 



crutiatingly needs, the sound of the word "Swann" has 
more magic than the word "mother." Swann is at a 
further remove. Fantasy, conjecture, and reverie are fed 
by the partially known, the barely glimpsed, the over- 
heard. Need, physical and direct, is too painful to be 
magical, and carries no sound. Desire, mental and distant, 
admits of any possibility. Venice and Parma sound all 
depths. Frangoise is in the kitchen. 

The sense of place is never disinterested. Wherever one 
is seems permanently fixed; wherever one is not is invested 
with glamour. Both notions are illusory. The sense of 
place merely precedes the sense of dislocation. The security 
of Combray produces the romance of Balbec, the boredom 
of Balbec the excitement of Venice. Susceptibility is the 
key to interest. 

Before Marcel sees Balbec, he imagines it as a stormy, 
northern coast of mist and cold, on the edge of which a 
church built in the Persian style is perched. This notion 
comes to him from Swann, who acts, for Marcel, as a 
kind of sinister travel agent, imbuing foreign places 
with the fantasies of nostalgia rather than the limitations 
of fact. When Marcel arrives at Balbec, he makes a pil- 
grimage to the church before he gets to tlie town proper, 
and finds it in a square as pedestrian as the one at Com- 
bray. A sign across the street reads "Billiards." Balbec 
itself is a bustling seaside resort with a grand hotel. 
Actuality contends with the haunted coastline of the 
imagination, the exotic image of the Persian church. 



Obstructed by a vision he created out of the sound of 
words, Marcel misses also something of the reality before 
him. In a typical Proustian twist, Elstir, in a later scene, 
explaining the carvings of the Balbec church to Marcel, 
confirms the presence of a Persian sculpture that Marcel 
failed to see: 

Some parts of it are quite oriental; one of the capitals re- 
produces so exactly a Persian subject that you cannot account 
for it by the persistance of oriental traditions. The carver must 
have copied some casket brought from the East by explorers. 
(WBG II 196) 

Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation 
and, therefore, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment. 
It is merely one link in a chain of similar circumstances. 
Marcel's notion of what Berma's performance of Phedre 
will be like is utterly different from what he sees. Around 
the billboard announcing the presentation of the play, 
Marcel constructs his own performance. The real thing 
disappoints him; it takes him years to discover the true 
nature of Berma's genius. Similarly, the railway timetable 
is, in Swanns Way, "the most intoxicating romance 
in the lover's library." (SW421) By the time we get to 
the second volume of Cities of the Plain, Marcel can say 
"in the timetable itself, I could have consulted the page 
headed: Balbec to Douville via Doncieres with the same 
happy tranquility as a directory of addresses." (CP II 356) 

Near the end of Remembrance of Things Past, Mme. 



Sazerat, a Combray neighbor, turns up at the Venice 
hotel where Marcel and his mother are staying. At a 
table in the dining room, Mme. de Villeparisis and 
Norpois, the diplomat, who have been lovers for years, 
are having lunch. During Mme. Sazerat's girlhood, her 
father had ruined himself for Mme. de Villeparisis' sake. 
Anxious to see this beautiful creature on whose behalf 
her family had suffered so much, she asks Marcel to 
point out Mme. de Villeparisis, whom she has never seen. 
What she now sees is an old, dried-up, little woman whose 
face is marred by a hideous eczema. She does not believe 
this person is Mme. de Villeparisis; she can only imagine 
Mme. de Villeparisis as permanently young, eternally 
beautiful, forever capable of inducing pain. Mme. de Ville- 
parisis, "the thing," and Mme. de Villeparisis, "the 
name," have become separated. 

But there is still another turn of the screw. Emotions 
may make illusions of perception. Time can make illusions 
of the emotions. If the old Mme. de Villeparisis has 
never been real to Mme. Sazerat, who can only imagine 
her in a perpetual present, so Mme. de Villeparisis, the 
young heartbreaker of the past, has never been real to 
Marcel either. Seeing Mme. Sazerat's illusion, he under- 
stands his own. They are both taken in by "the name," 
even if their misconceptions come from opposite direc- 
tions in time. Though there are as many realities as there 
are perceivers, one quality of reality can always be taken 
for granted: it cannot be truly perceived at any point 



in time without a knowledge of the past and the future. 
Points of time are artificial and deceptive; they foster 
the illusion that they are real and complete in themselves. 

Proust attempts to get at reality from three points of 
view at once, the past, the present, and the future. The 
structure of his book cannot by intention be chronological. 
It is, rather, centrifugal. The floating narrator, trying to 
fall asleep, slowly becoming aware of the various rooms 
and places in which he has lived, might be compared to a 
spider at the center of a circular web, spinning a world 
out of his own consciousness. The web, already finished in 
his own mind, allows him to dart to this point or that on 
the rim of the circle — flying away from the center, then 
back. His books expands successively outward and down- 
ward from himself. Or, like a pebble thrown in a pond, 
each incident in Proust widens out to its farthest perim- 

The enchantments of the past must always become the 
disenchantments of the future. But memory, a preserv- 
ative, may intervene. The embalmer of original enchant- 
ments, it is the only human faculty that can outwit the 
advance of chronological time. Art, the embalmer of 
memory, is the only human vocation in which the time 
regained by memory can be permanently fixed. 

It is these two saving graces that Proust enshrines in a 
world that has no others. 


II : The Gardens 

"I had already drawn from the visible stratagems of flow- 
ers a conclusion that bore upon a whole unconscious 
element of literary work . . ." 

(CP I 4) 


F, LIKE A BOTANIST, OHC wcrc to scarch through Remem- 
brance of Things Past for flowers, one would be surprised 
at the size of the bouquet. Swann's way is a country of 
Hlac and hawthorn; hawthorn, particularly, is to be tlie 
flower that reminds Marcel of Combray. Its pink ex- 
quisite version is found on the way to Swann's house, and 



it is also a religious flower, whose white species not only 
decorates the church of Saint-Hilaire at Combray during 
festivals but "arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable 
from the mysteries in whose celebration it was playing a 
part, it thrust in among the tapers and sacred vessels its 
rows of branches." (SW 158) The Guermantes way is 
strewn with water lilies and violets. These flower images 
are not merely decorative. For the opening action of 
Swanns Way takes place in a garden, and around that 
garden the rest of the novel gradually crystallizes, each 
memory lighting up a bit of space here, a piece of time 
there in the narrator's fluid consciousness, until all its 
elements are solidified. This seemingly random process 
is actually rigidly circumscribed. As each of the characters, 
places, and themes appear, adding shape to the novel's 
structure, and density to its coloration, the architectural 
mass of the novel accumulates power. Its form is mysteri- 
ously unknown to us at first; each fine stratum added to 
another builds up, finally, to solid rock. It is difficult 
sometimes to make out the shape of the rock; it is hidden 
by flowers whose forms are evocative and whose scents 
are overpowering. 

Just as the madeleine dipped in tea — a tiny garden 
image in itself, for the tea consists of lime blossoms steeped 
in water — is the magic potion from which all of Combray 
is to be released, so Aunt Leonie's garden, so real origin- 
ally, becomes that ideal ground, the perpetual springtime 
of childhood. 



We have three gardens to begin with: the one attached 
to Aunt Leonie's house; the hawthorn and lilac along 
the MesegHse way; and the water lilies and violets that 
perfume the Vivonne along the Guermantes way. About 
each of these gardens, the three "families" cluster: Mar- 
cel's, Swann's, and the Guermantes'. They are all Com- 
bray, and around that magic land, that garden from 
which a child is expelled— in the same way that Adam 
was expelled from the garden of Eden, and for much the 
same reason — a universe begins to expand, as magical in 
its embodiment as the genie escaping from the bottle. 

Tiny as Aunt Leonie's garden is, it includes a Geth- 
semane. Swann's ringing of the garden gate bell — a sound 
which is to re-echo throughout all of Remembrance 
of Things Past — carries the sound of doom to Marcel. 
It means he will be sent to bed early; his mother will 
forego his good-night kiss, that kiss upon which all his 
security and well-being depend. Marcel tries to force his 
mother to kiss him good night by sending her a note 
through Fran^oise, Aunt Leonie's faithful servant and 
cook. When there is no response to this, he waits, tremb- 
ling, at a turning of the stairs to intercept her. Her 
negative response — she is, after all, interested in "curing" 
him of his neurotic dependency — is surprisingly counter- 
manded by Marcel's father, who sees that Marcel is suffer- 
ing and suggests that Marcel's mother spend the night 
in his bedroom. Marcel falls asleep while his mother reads 
to him from George Sand's novel, Frangois le champi. 



This forcing of the issue, this "involuntary" kiss seals 
Marcel's fate. An emotional "Bx,'' it is the negative of a 
photograph that v^ill be developed many times. In ridding 
himself of one anxiety, Marcel inherits others. Through 
this submission on his mother's part. Marcel unconsciously 
learns that suffering is a v^ay of being loved, that love, 
once freely given, can be demanded. By being v^illful, he 
has, paradoxically, been allowed to suffer a paralysis of the 
will. One other important thing should be noted: though 
it is his mother's love Marcel needs, it is through the 
pov^er of a man, his father, that he is permitted to receive 
it. Watching Sw^ann, his mother, and his father in the 
garden through his w^indow, v^aiting for his mother to 
relieve him of his agony, he becomes a spy, the w^atcher 
v^hose beloved object is kept under surveillance until v^hat 
he must irrationally possess becomes his. The full flov^er- 
ing of the implications of this incident is elaborated in his 
love for Albertine, Bvt volumes later, but here, at the very 
beginning, vjt have all the precipitating influences that 
w^ill determine Marcel's emotional life. Since there is no 
security in a possession based on anxiety, the act must be 
repeated over and over again. Love is not a choice but a 
desperate reassurance, and the greatest power such a love 
has is the cessation of anxiety. The repetition of this 
ritual is the psychological key to the character of Marcel, 
in which suffering and love are inextricably bound. 
(Marcel's grandmother, though she also wants to "cure" 
him of his dependency, does not have the power to with- 



hold a ritual token essential to his happiness. There is, 
also, no third figure behind his grandmother with whom 
Marcel can compete. Because of this lack of compulsion, 
it is his grandmother, rather than his mother, who repre- 
sents genuine love throughout the novel.) 

From this early event, the night Marcel's mother spends 
in his room, we move backward and forward in time 
through a series of "gardens" — landscapes and seascapes — 
each of which is to be a place of suffering. The romance 
of Swann and Odette is pieced together by Marcel through 
the conversation and memories of other people. The re- 
lationship of Swann and Odette is the nourishing soil 
from which the emblematic tree of Marcel's life is to 
spring. Each furthers various romantic illusions that are 
to influence Marcel's life deeply. Through Odette, he is 
subtly connected in his youth with the themes of love 
and art. There are three incompatible "portraits" of 
Odette. Marcel first meets her as a boy at his Uncle 
Adolphe's house in Paris where she is known to him 
simply as "the lady in pink." He is aware that she is a 
courtesan though he hardly knows what the term implies. 
He knows she is "bad" and interesting, yet she seems so 
like everyone else, except for her air of luxury and refine- 
ment, the stylishness of her clothes. Later, when he sees 
Elstir's portrait of her as "Miss Sacripant," in which she 
is dressed as a man, he is disturbed by her again, pardy 
because he knows her without quite recognizing her, 



partly because of the transvestite nature of the portrait 
itself. Between these two portraits, another intervenes: 
Swann's comparison of Odette to the "Zipporah" of Bot- 

Odette has, from the beginning, the excitement of the 
forbidden, a suggestion of evil, particularly since what 
makes her so is invisible to Marcel as a child, and becomes 
attached to the figure of Gilberte during his boyhood. 
Gradually joining Odette's circle, one of the young men 
who pays court to her image rather than to herself. Marcel 
is caught up in the complication of her roles: the "fast" 
woman of Combray, the courtesan he meets at Uncle 
Adolphe's, Swann's wife in Paris, and the mother of Gil- 
berte. Odette is a distillation of both the biological and 
social strands of the novel. She is the personification of a 
sexual secret, and she is fashionable. Proust creates a bou- 
quet around her by associating her in a thousand ways 
with flowers: her winter garden, her chrysanthemums, 
her violets, her orchids. A courtesan's life is lived in privacy 
— a privacy whose greatest compensation is luxury, and, 
to Odette, flowers are both luxuries and symbols of the 
luxurious. In a marvelous expansion of metaphor, Proust 
merges these various facets of Odette into a general obser- 
vation on the relationship between flowers, trees, and 

I had heard that Mme. Swann walked almost every day along 
the Allee des Acacias, round the big lake, and in the Allee de 
la Reine Marguerite. I would guide Fran^oise in the direction 



o£ the Bois de Boulogne. It was to me like one of those zoolog- 
ical gardens in which one sees assembled together a variety 
of flora . . . this, the Bois . . . was the Garden of Woman; 
and like the myrtle-alley in the Aeneid, planted for their 
delight with trees of one kind only, the Allee des Acacias was 
thronged with the famous Beauties of the day. (SW 597) 

. . . from a long way off . . . long before I reached the acacia- 
alley, their fragrance, scattered abroad, would make me feel 
that I was approaching the incomparable presence of a vege- 
table personality, strong and tender; then, as I drew near, 
the sight of their topmost branches, their lightly tossing foli- 
age, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, 
over which hundreds of flowers were laid, like winged and 
throbbing colonies of precious insects. . . . (SW 598) 

In Odette's house, after her marriage to Swann, "There 
was always beside her chair an immense bowl of crystal 
filled to the brim with Parma violets or with long white 
daisy-petals scattered upon the water. . . ." (WBG I 237) 
In the passage quoted above, there is one reference to 
water, "the big lake," and, interestingly enough, in a scene 
that connects two important gardens together, we get the 
same brief juxtaposition of the floral and the marine. It is 
the scene in the Champs-Elysees where Marcel wrestles 
with Gilberte. He saw her first in Swann's garden at Tan- 
sonville, where she beckoned to him from a distance by 
sketching "in the air an indelicate gesture," one he assumes 
is a deliberate insult, but which, for him, has a definite 



sexual connotation. In the second garden, the Champs- 
Elysees, we come upon this passage: 

I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I 
was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, 
when I was aheady out o£ breath with the muscular exercise 
and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of 
sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express it- 
self in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to 
analyse. . . . Perhaps she was dimly conscious that my game 
had had another object than that which I had avowed, but 
too dimly to have been able to see that I had attained it. 
(WBG I 193) 

It is immediately after this scene, that Marcel has an 
involuntary memory. The moldy smell of the urinal in 
the Champs-Elysees reminds him of his Uncle Adolphe's 
room at Combray. The linking of flowers and water — the 
Champs-Elysees and the water closet — of the later garden 
and the early one should not be lost on us, for it is through 
Uncle Adolphe that Marcel first met Odette, and it is 
Odette who makes possible, both biologically and socially. 
Marcel's relationship to Gilberte. 

The floral images of Swann's Way are superseded by the 
marine images of Within a Budding Grove, and both 
kinds of images thread themselves through the remainder 
of the novel. Elstir's paintings are a clue to this. Frangoise's 
asparagus, which Marcel describes in detail at Combray, 
turn up in The Guermantes Way in a painting of Elstir's 
called "Bundle of Asparagus," and in his painting of the 



harbor at Carquethuit, the land images — of the town, 
the church, the promontory— are painted in watery colors 
and forms, whereas the sea is depicted as if it were on land. 
The plain of Swann's way, the river of the Guermantes 
way are, slowly, being joined. 

Water lilies float on the surface of the Vivonne along 
the Guermantes way. It is a water pipe at the Princesse de 
Guermantes' that restores to Marcel a moment in the 
"marine dining room" at Balbec. A bowl of water, a lake, 
a few drops of moisture, and a urinal connect the Champs- 
Elysees with the Combray of Adolphe, Odette, and Gil- 
berte. They connect further with the underground bath- 
ing establishment at Balbec that Albertine used to fre- 
quent. It is there, after her death, that Marcel sends Aime, 
the headwaiter of the hotel, to investigate Albertine's Les- 
bian connections. It would not be too farfetched to say 
that they prefigure Marcel's trip with his mother to Venice. 
Proust connects everything with fine wire, and just as 
Swann and Odette use the word "Cattleya" — an orchid — 
as a code word for sexual intercourse, so it is to be another 
and rare orchid that waits to be fertilized by a bee in the 
Duchesse de Guermantes' courtyard in that remarkable 
scene in which Charlus and Jupien meet, and, perform- 
ing a ritual as predetermined as any in the instinctual 
world of biology, recognize each other as homosexual 

These images open out even further. Not only is the 
dining room at Balbec "marine," but so are tlie dining 



room and garden at Rivebelle. And if a performance at 
the Opera is transformed into a subaqueous theatre of the 
Nereids, so an aquarium is the very metaphor Proust uses 
as a description of Charlus' way of Hving: 

And so M. de Charlus lived in a state of decepdon like the 
fish that thinks that the water in which it is swimming ex- 
tends beyond the glass wall of its aquarium which mirrors it, 
while it does not see close beside it . . . the shadow of the 
human visitor who is amusing itself watching its movements, 
or the all-powerful keeper who, at the unforeseen and fatal 
moment . . . will extract it without compunction from the 
place in which it was happily living to cast it into another. 
(CP II 268-269) 

Balbec itself is a 'Vater garden;" on one side, it faces the 
sea; on the other the countryside v^here Mme. Verdurin's 
estate. La Raspeliere, is located, as v^ell as the Cambremer's 
estate, Feterne. 

The garden deities move toward the water, and Marcel's 
mother, a major one, is transferred from a garden to a 
seascape near the end of the novel when she and Marcel 
finally take the trip to Venice. By then, we have been 
through every female relationship of Marcel's life. The 
figure of the mother outlasts them all. When we reach 
Venice, we have moved more than the great distance that 
separates the flowers and streams of Combray from the 
world's only city of water. We have moved backward in 
time to that fateful moment when the seed is planted in 



the soil. A Gothic window overlooking the Grand Canal 
faces the same sort of view Marcel saw from the window 
of Aunt Leonie's bedroom. 

Swann is a kind of unwitting Mephistopheles to Marcel's 
Faust. Through Swann, Marcel falls in love with the illu- 
sion of place, the idea of love, and the vocation of art. 
Swann is more than Marcel's mentor, however. The very 
name of Swann is a magic essence: 

The name, which had for me become almost mythological, 
of Swann — when I talked with my family, I would grow 
sick with longing to hear them utter it; I dared not pronounce 
it myself, but I would draw them into the discussion of 
matters which led naturally to Gilberte and her family. . . . 
All the singular seductions which I had stored up in the sound 
of that word Swann, I found again as soon as it was uttered. 
(SW 206-207) 

Proust planned originally to divide Remembrance of 
Things Past into three parts: the Age of Names, the Age 
of Words, and the Age of Things. The preverbal magic of 
the name Swann, like the bell that sounds to announce 
his arrival, attaches itself to the Swann that is a world in 
himself as well as to the worlds Swann discloses to Marcel. 
This bewitched sensation repeats itself in the name "Guer- 
mantes," and casts its spell on such notions as travel, love, 
and social position. It is the necessary luster through 
which Marcel apprehends the surface of reality. Swann 



is enchantment's personification, and, as such, a blinder 
of vision in person; every delusion of Marcel's life is 
threaded through the figure of Sw^ann. There are three 
special reasons for this: 

i) Sv^ann is, in himself, a cause of Marcel's pain, being 
the immediate though unknov^ing catalyst of Marcel's 
agony on the night his mother withholds her good-night 

2) Causing pain, Sw^ann nevertheless has experienced 
its equivalent in his relationship to Odette. 

3) Marcel follows Swann's example throughout life, 
repeating the major experiences Swann undergoes, but 
transcends the limitations of Swann's life by discovering 
the secret of time regained and by committing himself to 
the vocation of art. 

Swann is the pilgrim without knowledge watched over 
by the enlightened proselyte who has outdistanced him. 
Swann is Marcel, the nonwriter; Marcel, the writer, is 
Swann transfigured. Swann acts as an example, frozen in 
the world of love and society, who glimpses the faintest 
lights of the world of illumination and hears the distant 
echoes of a world escaped from time. Like Marcel in the 
bedroom scene, Swann's will is the index of his weakness. 
He acts, but against himself. Having come to see the 
emptiness of life, he sees nothing else. Swann's great curse 
is that he is not an artist; he is a connoisseur of art. He is 



damned in the same way diat a nonbeliever might be in a 
reHgious book who is always a hair's breadth away from 
revelation and dies having missed the secret of redemption. 
He is sympathetic, but he is our study in error. Neverthe- 
less, he leads a saint into the wilderness — and by furnish- 
ing a bad example, out of it — and near the very end of 
The Past Recaptured, the last volume of the novel. Marcel 
states clearly the influence of Swann on his life: 

But if it had not been for Swann, I would not even have known 
the Guermantes, since my grandmother would not then 
have renewed her acquaintance with Mme. de Villeparisis 
and I would not have met Saint-Loup and M. de Charlus, 
which led to my meeting the Duchesse de Guermantes and, 
through her, her cousin, so that it was also through Swann 
that I happened at this moment to be in the house of the 
Prince de Guermantes, where the idea of the book I was to 
write had just come to me suddenly — which meant that I 
should be indebted to Swann, not only for its subject but also 
for the decision to undertake it. A rather slender stem, per- 
haps, to support in this way the endre expanse of my life! 
(PR 247-248) 

Each of Marcel's loves — Gilberte, Oriane de Guermantes, 
Albertine — ^belongs to special landscapes. Gilberte travels 
from Swann's garden at Tansonville to the Champs- 
Elysees; the Duchesse de Guermantes from a legendary 
countryside filled with castles and feudal demigods to her 
mansion in Paris with its garden courtyard where a rare 
plant waits for a bee to fertilize it; and Albertine from the 



seaside at Balbec to imprisonment in Paris. Each of these 
flowers seemingly so firmly fixed in its original soil rises 
up from its roots and spreads its tendrils in various direc- 
tions. To know Gilberte, Marcel pursues the Swanns. As 
he becomes an intimate of Odette's drawing room, a 
friend of Swann's, he moves further away from his original 
object, Gilberte. Starting out to be a lover, he ends up a 
family friend. 

And Albertine is, from the beginning, part of a "little 
band." Marcel falls in love with a group of girls at once — 
les jeunes filles en fieur. Capable of causing him the 
deepest anguish, Albertine is finally singled out. She, even 
more than Gilberte, is insubstantial. Gilberte is various but 
less diffused. There is the Gilberte who goes to tea parties, 
the Gilberte who is Swann's daughter, the Gilberte who 
plays "prisoner's base" in the Champs-Elysees. (It is in- 
teresting to note this game, for, later, Albertine is to be re- 
ferred to as "the prisoner.") In Albertine, Marcel attaches 
himself to an enigma, compounded of sea and sky — ("Al- 
bertine preserved, inseparably attached to her, all my im- 
pressions of a series of seascapes ... I felt that it was 
possible for me on the girl's two cheeks, to kiss the whole 
of the beach at Balbec") (GW II 73)— and yet tantaliz- 
ingly human, an enigma impossible of solution, for it 
would be just as easy to say that Albertine becomes at- 
tached to the enigma of Marcel. Albertine is cunning and 
devious, but in a kind of endless reflection of facing mir- 
rors, it is impossible to tell where Marcel's version of her 



ends and her own begins. With Gilberte, Marcel preserves 
her original image by detaching himself from her. With 
Albertine, he plunges into a sea that has no discernible 
depth. So convoluted, so sensitized does his love for Al- 
bertine become, that, in a kind of reverse recoil, she seems 
to ape the object she sees reproduced in his eyes. Albertine 
moves in a bourgeois v^orld, conventional on the surface, 
intangible in reality, and filled v^ith perverse glimmerings 
— a world of middle-class girls disporting themselves at 
the beach, disappearing into the countryside, playing "fer- 
ret," which, like Gilberte's game of "prisoner's base," Mar- 
cel is finally allowed to join. But what he joins is not an 
ordinary group of girls but a tangle of ambiguous god- 
desses, slipping in and out of each other's identities — the 
mobile consciousnesses of the sea and the sky, which never- 
theless exude the strong flavor of vegetation: 

As on a plant whose flowers open at different seasons, I had 
seen, expressed in the form of old ladies, on this Balbec shore, 
those shrivelled seed-pods, those flabby tubers which my friends 
would one day be. (WBG II 267) 

Through the Duchesse, the mysterious world of the 
Guermantes, so absolutely impenetrable to Marcel, he 
thinks, gradually becomes accessible. What is revealed is 
not the magic of ancient names and distinctions, but 
human failure, duplicity, and vanity. These three women 
are all shimmer and mystery when Marcel first meets 
them; they are processed, in time, by reality, but a reality 



in itself questionable, for the perceiver changes at the 
same time as the objects that undergo a metamorphosis 
beneath his gaze. 

These three loves, though they are all failures, differ 
from each other in important ways. Marcel gives Gilberte 
up as if the suffering his love for her entails is too much 
to bear. He protects that love by refusing to allows it to be 
nurtured toward a conclusion; he draws back to avoid 
further pain. Haunted by doubt, doubt becomes obsessive. 
It is only late in life that he realizes that Gilberte was at- 
tainable. She confesses she was attracted to him, at the 
very end of the novel. At the time their relationship takes 
place, he withdraws in order to sanctify the image of his 
love rather than risk its failure. In this retreat, we have a 
narcissistic, almost masturbatory version of love. The pic- 
ture, or image of the beloved, is more precious than its 
actual presence — just as the lantern slides of Genevieve 
de Brabant are always to be the ideal against which the 
Duchesse de Guermantes is to be measured. So the ideali- 
zation of women — like places — ^is always fatally incon- 
sistent with knowing them. Like the two ways, where 
geography becomes mental, so, here, physicality and per- 
sonality become internalized. The true Gilberte exists in- 
side Marcel, not outside him. Marcel destroys and preserves 
his relationship to her at the same time. Oblivion accom- 
panies separation. But by not coming to any issue, the re- 
lationship forms an unconscious pattern for those of the 
future, as it reinforces the emotional patterns of his be- 



havior toward women that began with his mother. If 
love can be deliberately demanded, it also can be deliber- 
ately killed. 

Mme. de Guermantes inspires love by awe; her name is 
evocative, magical. She is not a person who turns into an 
illusion like Gilberte, or an illusion that turns into a per- 
son like Albertine. She is inhuman to begin with. Proust 
says that the love for a person is always the love of some- 
thing else as well, and, in the Duchesse, Marcel becomes 
obsessed with the power of the feudal overlord who is 
still a member of the contemporary world — a world so 
select, so special, that, to Marcel, it might as well be the 
Middle Ages. If, with Gilberte, he falls in love with the 
legend of Swann, with the Duchesse, he falls in love with 
the history of France. It is not her wit, her style, her posi- 
tion, or her beauty that ultimately matter; it is that in her 
name she embodies a history; in her face and person a 
race; in her speech a landscape and an epoch; and in 
her manners a civilization. Though her intelligence, her 
modishness, her ton impress everyone as they do herself, 
to Marcel, after he has sifted the real jewels from the fake, 
it is another quality that counts: her conservativeness, in 
the real sense, for here, in person, is the prototype of some- 
thing worthy of conservation. The Duchesse, the greatest 
lady of her day, and Frangoise, the servant, share qualities 
in common. Their speech and their manners are feudal; 
the serf and the lord possess virtues enhanced by the ex- 
istence of each other. The farmer and the landowner, 



Still bearing the fragrance of the soil, enrich each other's 
powers. In Remembrance of Things Past, Frangoise and 
the Duchesse have no reason to meet. Yet they have more 
in common than either could possibly imagine. They are 
tv^o terms that have become separated in one of Proust's 

In the social world of the day, the Duchesse is some- 
thing else again: she is powerful because of who she is, 
and more powerful because she knows how to exploit her- 
self. Mme. de Guermantes lives a life Marcel can only 
imagine; since that is his chief way of perceiving life in 
general, she becomes a wheel within a wheel. A great lady 
smiles at him in church at Combray; he follows her 
through the streets of Paris; and imagines the ghost of 
her haunting the snow-hushed streets of the army town 
of Doncieres. 

What he is searching for is the enigma of history, the 
charm of the person exempt from humanity. As the Duch- 
esse becomes human, she loses her charm and history its 
enigma. (In the same way, diplomacy becomes dull in 
Norpois, medicine absurd in Cottard.) Marcel spies on 
the Duchesse waiting along the route he knows she is to 
pass. As he did with his mother, with Gilberte, he watches 
her. By the time he knows whom he is watching, he is 
watching somebody else. 

Albertine is the great love of Marcel's life, and in 
Proust's description and analysis of their relationship, we 
have the most original, hypnotic, and accurate dissection 



of obsessive love in fiction. Proust's portrait of Albertine 
is a final accomplishment in a theory of personality im- 
plicit throughout the book. People do not only become 
different in time; they are different from time to time: the 
observer undergoes analagous changes. Proust's characters 
seem to be attending a long costume party, in which one 
disguise is doffed after another, but their costumer is 
changing clothes at the same time. At the last great party 
given at the Princesse de Guermantes (the former Mme. 
Verdurin), he describes the decline and old age of his 
characters as if time had dressed them in various disguises. 
In truth, they w^ere in disguise aWays; each revelation in 
Proust occurs from a slightly different angle. It is the 
process of character that defines it; since character is only 
made manifest in time, there is no other definition. Even a 
minor character like Legrandin illustrates this, for vi^hen 
we first meet him, he attacks snobbery violently. We meet 
him later and discover he is a snob; in fact, he is haunted 
by snobbery. And when we see him finally, after he has 
entered the Faubourg Saint-Germain through the marriage 
of his nephew, he is no longer interested in it, or going 
out to parties. The revolution has come full circle; the 
infatuation of a lifetime has wasted itself on nothing. If we 
can conceive of Legrandin being observed by viewers other 
than Marcel at various times in his life, we can see how 
many versions of Legrandin could be made up. 

All these inconsistencies, all these turns of the screw, 
become consistent in the end. Realism in fiction never cor- 



responds to reality in life, because it presupposes an im- 
possible point of view — that one which lacks a viewer. A 
reality is always real to somebody. As soon as it is, the 
viewer must be included with the view. Proust argues 
against realism effectively and provides the ultimate dem- 
onstration. Proust is the most honest of novelists because 
he shows us not only how little we know about other 
people but how impossible it is to know them. It is a 
suspicion we have always had but hate to see confirmed. 
The confirmation does not warm us; nevertheless, we can- 
not deny it. Proust, like the genius psychologist he is, 
makes the inconsistencies take on a consistency of their 
own, just as Chekhov, in the theatre, shows us how the 
seemingly irrelevant lies at the heart of relevance. The 
patching together of what appear to be opposing traits 
performs a function similar to that of a metaphor, for only 
those actions that are dissimilar but capable of connection 
can create a whole character out of superficially irrecon- 
cilable kinds of behavior. The power of metaphor is not 
merely descriptive but psychological; the link between 
two things we were not aware of is revealed to us. Far- 
fetched it may be, even bizarre; we know instantly, 
though, whether it rings true. When it is successful, it 
has two virtues: it increases our sense of credibility by re- 
fusing to win us over easily, and it sharpens our sense of 
revelation. Mme. Verdurin's anti-Semitism and her Drey- 
fusism would seem incompatible. Once we understand 
that she is a professional cause-monger who needs only a 



cause celebre and can switch from Dreyfus to Debussy 
without a qualm, the inconsistency vanishes. It has helped, 
nevertheless, to make Mme. Verdurin real. 

Charlus moves through Remembrance of Things Past 
like a mobile statue constantly being resculpted. The re- 
visions have no effect on verisimilitude. Only once, in 
Proust, in the revelation of Saint-Loup's homosexuality, 
is this sure grasp of the basic nature of personality ques- 
tionable. Proust "springs" it on us; we don't quite believe 
it. What we feel is his obsession to reveal rather than the 
truth of the revelation. 

In this sense of character as metaphor, Albertine is 
Proust's consummate creation. 

Who is Albertine ? She is the unknowable animal who 
calls forth the finest resources of Marcel's intellect. The 
greatest analytical mind in the world is helpless confronted 
with a dog. It is Marcel's fate to want to see what cannot 
be seen: the sex life of a plant, the emotional histories of 
the deep-sea creatures, the motivations of the dark. Marcel 
and Albertine are two liars hopelessly tangled together. 
She charms him by being out of the range of what analysis 
can reach. To keep her in focus for a further try, lured 
by what he cannot know, he falls in love with her. 

Albertine is Marcel's sensibility turned inside out and 
objectified. The greater pretense in their relationship 
comes from Marcel. Her reserve in the face of his jealousy, 
her lies, her restlessness all prod him on to another attack. 



// he knew, he keeps saying, he would be happy. But it 
is precisely because he doesn't know that he loves her. A 
scientist in a dressing gown, he watches over a laboratory 
of falsehoods, the greatest one being that he is objective in 
regard to the truth. Marcel uses Albertine to keep from 
himself a truth about himself: he is not in love with Al- 
bertine, he is in love with what Albertine loves. 

As such, he credits her with a power and a reality she 
doesn't have. Albertine is addicted to games — particularly 
"diabolo" — clothes, cars, ice cream, planes. She is far 
simpler than he and far more deceptive. His lies are lies 
of the mind, hers of being. In Albertine, Marcel is matched 
against himself in a battle that cannot be finished. She 
holds within herself the two sexes in one and is, therefore, 
a constant reenactment in her very existence of the ideal 
torture of the voyeur. Albertine is the window scene of 
Montjouvain, the courtyard scene of Charlus and Jupien 
played over forever and ever. 

It is no wonder that her commonest attributes, her polo 
cap, her mackintosh, the way she plays the pianola, her 
stride along the front — every physical manifestation of 
herself— take on an Olympian sheen. Marcel grasps at 
every vestige of her reality because he has made her up 
the way the Greeks made up their gods: he needs con- 
stantly to be reassured that she is there, Albertine is both a 
deity in Proust's "Garden of Woman" and the demon at 
the center of his vision, for he describes her as "a mighty 
Goddess of Time" under whose pressure he is compelled 



to discover the past. Starting out with the mystery of the 
animal, she ends up with the mysteries of eternity. 

There is another important female deity at Combray, 
the owner of the house herself, Aunt Leonie. Like Marcel, 
she is a perpetual watcher, a hypochondriac confined to 
her bed, nursed on two equally powerful illusions: the 
illusion of her illness, and the illusion of its cure. Marcel 
inherits more from her than even he is at first aware of. 
Love becomes for Marcel a similar phenomenon, and, 
characteristically, takes on the symbolic form of illness. 
Like Aunt Leonie, Marcel develops an incurable disease, 
asthma. Suffocated by the scents of the flowers that he 
loves, he is forbidden the garden forever. 


Ill : The Windows 

"My curiosity emboldening me by degrees, I went down 
to the groundfloor window, which also stood open with 
its shutters ajar." 

(CP I 2) 


HiLE MARCEL WAITS for his mother to come up 
and kiss him good night, he peers down into the garden 
through his bedroom window. That window is to become 
a point of view, a transparency more viable than that 
which ordinarily separates the spectator from the visible 
while it makes vision possible. In Proust, the window is, 



psychologically, the voyeur's picture. Accidental images 
of other people's pleasure fulfill a painful need in the 
viewer. Contributing a povi^er v^ithin himself to what he 
sees, Marcel is the victim of what is to be seen. 

We are introduced to the window device in a subtle 
way. In Marcel's room at Combray, he looks at the lantern 
slides of Golo and Genevieve de Brabant, that ancestress 
of the Duchesse de Guermantes who first stirs the sedi- 
ment that is to coalesce around the Duchesse's name and 
person. Marcel is able, by manipulating the projector, to 
focus the magic lantern slides on any part of his room. 
Their images are both deeded and willed. 

There is a finespun association between the colors of 
the lantern slides and the colors Proust uses in the scene 
in which Marcel first sees the Duchesse in church. In the 
slides, Genevieve de Brabant wears a blue girdle, the castle 
and the moor are yellow, and the body of Golo, overcom- 
ing material obstacles, floats on the walls, on the door 
handle, wearing his red cloak. His face is described as 
pale. Here, in part, is the church scene: 

Suddenly, during the nuptial mass, the beadle, by moving to 
one side, enabled me to see, sitting in a chapel, a lady with 
fair hair and a large nose, piercing blue eyes, a billowy scarf 
of mauve silk, glossy and new and brilliant, and a little spot 
at the corner of her nose. And because the surface o£ her face, 
which was red . . . (SW 250) 

This passage is followed by this interesting connecting 
link to the lantern slides: 



... we were uncertain, till then, whether we were not look- 
ing merely at a projection of limelight from a lantern . . . 
(SW 251) 

And ends thus: 

Her eyes waxed blue as a periwinkle flower, wholly beyond 
my reach, yet dedicated by her to me; and the sun, bursting 
out again from behind a threatening cloud and darting the 
full force of its rays on to the Square and into the sacristy, 
shed a geranium glow over the red carpet laid down for the 
wedding, along which Mme. de Guermantes smiHngly ad- 
vanced, and covered its woolen texture with a nap of rosy 
velvet, a bloom of light . . . (SW 255) 

The colors of the lantern slides and the stained-glass 
windows, both illuminating figures pertinent to the Duch- 
esse's geneology — Gilbert le Mauvais in stained glass, 
Genevieve de Brabant in the lantern's hues — shine down 
and through the Duchesse de Guermantes. They suggest, 
too, the fluidity of the apparently stable, the immateriality 
of what appears to be real. Just as Golo and Genevieve 
de Brabant can be focused on a doorknob in Marcel's 
room, so the light of the Duchesse's stained-glass ancestors 
focus their past illuminations on her, transcending her 
physical body, making her — as Marcel sees her — some- 
thing more than mortal. The affinity between the lantern 
slides and the stained-glass windows is one of the finer 
shades on Proust's palette, for it is to be through the 
"lenses" of windows that Marcel is to observe certain 
secrets of life, each one enlightening a mysterious past he 



did not understand, or projecting a significant image into 
the future. 

At Montjouvain, on one of Marcel's solitary walks along 
the Meseglise way, he falls asleep outside Vinteuil's house. 
When he wakes, he sees the first horror scene of Remem- 
brance of Things Past, Mile. Vinteuil's seduction by a 
woman friend, preceded by the sadistic ritual of spitting 
on Vinteuil's photograph. This scene follows one in which 
Marcel yearns to seduce a peasant girl — one who will be 
an extension of the countryside itself, a female avatar 
of the local ground, a precursor to the spectral landscapes 
locked up in the bodies of Gilberte, the Duchesse, and Al- 
bertine. What is the point of this scene? 

A serious relation between sex and art is being estab- 
lished, for it is through his love for his daughter, and the 
misery her Lesbian attachment causes him, that Vinteuil, 
a country tunesmith — our first impression of him — is trans- 
formed into a great composer. And it will be, ironically, 
this very same friend of his daughter's who will save 
Vinteuil's septet for posterity by meticulously collating 
various manuscripts of the score that Vinteuil left be- 
hind him when he died. Like Aunt Leonie's delusions, 
this woman is both a "cause" and a "cure"; ruining 
Vinteuil's life, she redeems herself by preserving his art, 
part of whose greatness is attributable to her very existence. 
It is also the first introduction of the homosexual theme 
in Remembrance of Things Past. Significantly, it will be 
through a window again that Marcel sees the meeting of 



Charlus and Jupien, their recognition and ritual pattern 
of seduction. This second revelation sheds a further light 
on the meaning of the first. 

These two scenes — Montjouvain and the courtyard scene 
that opens Cities of the Plain — are linked in many fash- 
ions, aside from being two explicit visions of sexual per- 
version. The pollenization of a rare orchid by a bee, the 
only insect that can fertilize it, picks up the biological 
motif with its flower metaphor, a motif implicit in the 
earlier scene in Marcel's desire to possess a human frag- 
ment of the Meseglise soil. Both scenes are seen through 
windows, and both scenes require the presence of a passive 
viewer whose existence is unknown to the participants. To 
Marcel, the helpless witness of both, they are more than 
prurient visions; they are happenings that are to have the 
profoundest effect on the future of his life. 

Homosexuals play a particular biological role in Re- 
membrance of Things Past, Acting behind windows 
through which their secrets can be observed — windows 
that often overlook gardens — they illustrate both the ir- 
rationality of human emotions and the capriciousness of 
nature. Like the rare orchid that waits to be fertilized by a 
bee in the Duchesse de Guermantes' courtyard, Charlus 
and Jupien exemplify a rare form of existence. Created 
from, but not creating life, they are a form, nevertheless, 
that has existed always. If instinct has become insidious 
in Swarm's choice of Odette and Marcel's of Albertine — 
choices that go counter to probability and reason — Charlus' 



choice of Morel goes counter to biology itself, if one as- 
sumes the purpose of biology to be reproduction. The im- 
possibility of homosexual relationships in Proust is vitiated 
by two facts: the pervasive maternal fog through which 
he sees all sexual relations, and the lack of a noncompul- 
sive heterosexual relationship that might form a standard 
of comparison. If love itself is a disease psychic in origin, 
but as predictable in its ultimate effects as pneumonia or 
cholera, it matters little how diseased any particular ver- 
sion of it is. In Proust, the homosexuals are just as un- 
happy as the heterosexuals. 

Homosexuals cannot be distinguished by any biological 
peculiarities observable to the scientist. They cannot nec- 
essarily be detected socially by any overt behavior. Being 
secret, they represent the qualities of secrecy. To the 
heterosexual made aware of their existence, as Marcel 
is at Montjouvain and in the Duchesse's courtyard, the 
homosexual becomes a permanent reminder of the un- 
conscious nature of sexuality per se, of the irrationality 
and power of all sexual attraction. 

Convincing as Proust may be, there is one peculiarly 
illogical drawback to the biological and psychological 
function homosexuals serve in his novel: Chosen as ex- 
ceptions to illustrate a general theory of love, the more 
they illustrate it the less exceptional they become. 

In society, homosexuals form a tenacious underground. 
At the Princesse de Guermantes' party in Cities of the 
Plain, the usher announcing the Due de Chattellerault 



has slept with him a few days earlier, under the impression 
he was an "Englishman." A footman, unaware of Charlus' 
identity, oilers to introduce him to the Prince de Guer- 
mantes, a relative to whom Charlus hardly needs an in- 
troduction. And Charlus himself, one of the great arbiters 
of French society, a man who sets the tone for a whole 
civilization, winds up in a male brothel being beaten by a 
male prostitute. (The inefEcacy of the paid-for beating 
is not merely one irony gilding another, it is the final, 
rotted core of the disease of the ideal. Even here — chosen, 
arranged for, paid for, in a house Charlus has helped 
set up for just such an occasion — the experience is unsatis- 
factory. The prostitute, a good sort, is not able convincingly 
to simulate hostility.) The freemasonry of homosexuality 
is a red thread binding the beggar to the king, the am- 
bassador to the footman. The secrecy of the homosexual, 
the hypocrisy of society are twin mirrors. Each must 
pretend something; disguise is the necessary catalyst to 

Homosexuals, a society within a society, are rooted in a 
biological incongruity, perpetually subject to social judg- 
ment, just as society, in a larger sense, springs from a false 
conception of human relationships, and is perpetually at 
the mercy of individual criticism. The mysteries of genetics 
produce a secret sect; the arbitrariness of genealogy (and, 
later, money, for the Duchesse de Guermantes' "breeding" 
is no more fortuitous than Mme. Verdurin's "millions") 



produces its social equivalent — the world of the Faubourg 

A minority group, driven by guilt and producing it, 
homosexuals are, according to Proust, outcasts of society 
only because society casts them out for its ov^^n special pur- 
poses: the survival of any social group depends on 
the ability to exclude. At the Verdurin musicale at Quai 
Conti, Charlus first excludes Mme. Verdurin, isolating 
her, through rudeness, from v^hat he considers her social 
superiors. Then she excludes him by turning Morel against 
him, v^ho publicly denounces Charlus. In each case, the 
weapons are social: status and prejudice. It is the Queen 
of Naples who rescues Charlus, taking him by the arm 
and leading him out of the room. We are back where we 
started : the Queen is putting Mme. Verdurin in her place. 

Because the homosexual is forced to assume a false social 
role, he is, paradoxically, a microcosm of society itself. 
The homosexual generates the condition that precedes 
social grouping, exclusion; as a member of society, he is a 
travesty, therefore, of its mechanics. The social grouping 
of the homosexual is of particular interest to Proust be- 
cause only a single arbitrary area of connection among 
individuals is necessary for the formation of the group. 
Thus, in the Dreyfus case, the social equivalent of this 
psychological process occurs. The Faubourg Saint-German 
and the anti-Semitic elements of the bourgeosie, ordinarily 
without any interests in common, find themselves in a 
forced but mutually profitable alliance. Similarly, it re- 



quires only Swann's passion for Odette to make him fall 
in love with the Verdurins — at first — ^when, in actuality, 
they are the very sort of people he detests. Homosexuality 
is most illustrative here because it produces the condition 
of least choice: psychological compulsion. Homosexuals 
cannot help excluding what they cannot include, hetero- 
sexual love. Society must pretend to be equally helpless. 
The Duchesse chooses whom she is to see in only a very 
limited sense; that is why it is important both for her 
prestige and self-esteem to assume an enormous range of 
possibilities: She will go to this party, but not that, re- 
ceive this particular person, but not the other. Actually, 
like the homosexual, her choices are precircumscribed. 

Charlus shares with Swann a distinction accorded only 
these two characters: they are observed, but they are also 
extensions of the observer: Swann is the heterosexual 
version of the Marcel who is observed, Charlus the homo- 
sexual one. They each occupy roughly similar positions, 
Swann dominating the first half of the book, Charlus 
the second. We infer this splitting up of character from 
the following facts : 

Swann's love affair with Odette, though it occurs many 
years before Marcel's birth, is a similar relationship to 
that of Marcel and Albertine. In spite of the difference in 
time, both relationships revolve at their beginnings around 
the closed circle of die Verdurin "little clan" and both 
have Vinteuil's "theme" as their leit-motif. Vinteuil's so- 
nata belongs to Swann, his septet to Marcel. More signifi- 



candy, the psychological patterns are similar: it is the 
enigmatic nature of the woman, the torture of her absence 
rather than the pleasure of her presence, that constitutes 
the clue to passion. The emotional exchange occurs with- 
in the lover, not between the lover and the beloved. It is 
jealousy that primes the heart rather than mutual satis- 
faction. Swann's jealousy is felt most keenly at a point 
where he becomes aware of Odette's having had Lesbian 
contacts as well as heterosexual ones — this fear of Odette's 
inversion becomes more credible if we connect Swann- 
Marcel with Odette-Albertine than it would be as an iso- 
lated fact. For there is nothing in the rest of Odette's life 
or Swann's history of jealousy to explain this rather unex- 
pected phenomenon. By the time Swann marries Odette, 
he is no longer in love with her: she has freed him from 
jealousy, she who was both its object and its cure, and 
she has detached him from the social world of the Fau- 
bourg to which he had belonged. Only one Faubourg 
daydream remains : Swann's fantasy of having Odette and 
Gilberte received by the Duchesse de Guermantes (the 
Princesse de Laumes at the time of Swann's marriage) 
as part of her intimate circle, a daydream denied Swann 
all his life and accomplished only after his death. Jealousy 
of a more specific sort drives Marcel into the labyrinth of 
Albertine's personality — ^his suspicions of her Lesbian ten- 
dencies. But when Marcel returns from that labyrinth, 
he does not return empty-handed; he has been forced to 
explore the labyrinth of himself, at the end of which is 
the book we are reading. Albertine, too, detaches Marcel 



from the social world — more completely than Odette does 
Swami, for Odette at least substitutes the society of the 
petty bourgeois for the Faubourg. Albertine, kept prisoner 
secretly, disguised as Marcel's cousin on the few occasions 
when they go out, absorbs all of Marcel, his will drained 
by obsession. For Marcel, all social life becomes meaning- 

In both cases, impossibility is the great propulsion to 
love. Odette is domesticated, Albertine imprisoned. Under 
surveillance, they do not give up their secrets. 

Swann marries Odette in the relief of liberation; Mar- 
cel lives with Albertine in the despair of imprisonment. 
But Swann's liberation is only delusive. Swann and Marcel 
follow the same path; Swann goes part of the way but 
not all of the way toward the truth. Swann fails by suc- 
ceeding; he marries Odette. Marcel succeeds by failing, he 
loses Albertine, and writes his book. The fineness of 
Swann's mind, the delicacy of his perceptions remain 
those of an extraordinary dilettante, but a dilettante all 
the same. Death strangles him with cancer among the 
nonentities of his life, who never have really loved him. 
Marcel trades life for the secret of time regained, the tri- 
umph of art. He does not create a dilettante's work, like 
the book on Vermeer that Swann never finishes — or live a 
life Vermeer might have approved of, which is Swann's 
pathetic justification of his own life — but a work of art 
worthy of Vermeer himself. 

If Swann and Marcel are the victims of a form of love 



that creates its objects out of itself, making a genuine 
union impossible, Charlus' relationship to Morel exem- 
plifies the same general proposition. Love is completely 
symbolic; the lover is half of a metaphor constantly search- 
ing for its relevant image. The metaphor is never com- 
pleted because the relevant image is alv^ays itself. In homo- 
sexuality, v^here both terms of the metaphor are more 
nearly the same, v^here there is an actual duplication in 
the physical bodies of the lovers, this version of love is 
given its most credible demonstration. 

In Marcel's love for Albertine, v^e re-explore the develop- 
ment of Sv^ann's love for Odette, then step over a bound- 
ary on the other side of v^hich lies the country of Charlus 
and Morel. The exploration is deeper, the nuances finer, 
the depths more horrifying. But essentially Albertine 
seems to be in part Odette, in part Morel; Marcel in part 
Swann, in part Charlus. 

If a v^indow is a transparency necessary to the voyeur, 
the ability to project images is necessary to the mastur- 
bator. The fact that crucial sexual scenes are v^itnessed in 
Proust through v^indov^s takes us back to the magic lan- 
tern of Marcel's boyhood. Like the v^indov^, it is a lens; 
unlike the window^, it is held in the hand, it projects im- 
ages, and it is manipulable. The lantern slides shed further 
light once wc realize that Genevieve de Brabant v^as 
falsely accused by Golo of committing adultery. Even 
these seemingly innocent childhood images contained a 



sexual secret. Proust includes a masturbation scene in 
which the images of a window, a flower, and a tower 
are used: 

Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of 
Roussainville . . . when, from the top floor of our house at 
Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had 
peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the 
square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic 
scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or 
of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruc- 
tion, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my 
own experience, an untrodden path, which, I believed, might 
lead me to my death, even — until passion spent itself and 
left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant 
which, creeping in through the window, tumbled about my 
body. (SW 226) 

The sexual meaning of the window is not confined to 
Marcel. When Swann goes to visit Odette during the 
early months of their courtship, he taps upon her window 
as a signal for her to come to the door to let him in. And, 
on two separate occasions when Swann suspects Odette 
of deceiving him with Forcheville, the window image is 
invoked. Odette asks Swann to mail some letters for her, 
one of which is addressed to Forcheville. Swann reads the 
letter through the envelope, and confirms the suspicion 
that Odette has betrayed him: 

For a time Swann stood still there, heartbroken, bewildered, 
and yet happy; gazing at this envelope which Odette had 

[55 1 


handed to him without a scruple, so absolute was her trust in 
his honour; through its transparent window there had been 
disclosed to him, with the secret history of an incident which 
he had despaired of ever being able to learn, a fragment of 
the life of Odette, seen as through a narrow, luminous in- 
cision, cut into its surface without her knowledge. Then his 
jealousy rejoiced at the discovery, as though that jealousy had 
had an independent existence, fiercely egotistical, gluttonous 
of everything that would feed its vitality, even at the expense 
of Swann himself. (SW 407) 

Later, he tries to peer through Odette's windov^ to sub- 
stantiate his fears. It is the wrong window and he wakens 
two sleeping old gentlemen. If the picture Swann sees 
framed in the window is not charged with the sexual 
meaning he expected, or the sexual intensity of the two 
homosexual scenes witnessed by Marcel, the scene is at 
least unconsciously consistent, for what Swann sees, no 
matter how comic or ludicrous at the moment, are two 
people of the same sex. 

The image of two people of the same sex, a relief to 
Swann, is to become a torture to Marcel. When Albertine's 
friendship with Mile. Vinteuil's anonymous Lesbian part- 
ner is revealed, the scene he had witnessed in his boyhood 
behind the window at Montjouvain is set in motion; the 
dormant, still picture becomes animated. It is Albertine's 
capacity to make Marcel suffer that defines the nature of 
his love, and it is her invisible Lesbianism that forms the 
substance of the long, analytical inquisition their relation- 



ship is to become. It is maternalness that Marcel seeks in 
his mother, and it is girlhood he seeks in Albertine. 
(". . . my love for Albertine had been but a transitory 
form of my devotion to girlhood.") (SCG 314) The par- 
ticular horror of Albertine for Marcel is that she is not 
only the chosen deity v^ho springs to life out of a general 
desire, but that she is his very competitor in that desire. 
(". . . all my desires helped me to understand, to a certain 
degree, w^hat hers had been . . .") (SCG 140) She betrays 
him not only as a lover but as a man, just as his mother 
betrayed him earlier, in a more complicated sense, not 
only as a child but as a son. It is the emotional relation- 
ship Marcel has w^ith his mother combined v^ith the homo- 
sexual content of the Montjouvain scene that gives Al- 
bertine her special power. What Marcel feels and sees as a 
child comes true to haunt him as a fact — a fact he wants 
and does not want to know, since his pleasure consists 
primarily in his ability to feel pain — a direct association 
with Charlus who is explicitly masochistic and needs, 
finally, to be beaten with chains to feel sexual pleasure. 
What does pain-pleasure consist in for Marcel? Helpless- 
ness — the watching of the performance of others, either 
childishly, as in the bedroom scene; sexually and literally, 
as in the two window scenes; or figuratively, as in his 
obsessive jealousy of Albertine. 

Marcel looks in at Mme. Swann's winter garden through 
a window, and out of the dining-room window of the Bal- 



bee hotel at the sea — against whose blue he draws the 
first portrait of Saint-Loup, and out of whose depths the 
goddess, Albertine, is to rise. He stares out the corridor 
window of the Grand Hotel at the countryside whose 
distant greenery encloses La Raspeliere, the Verdurins' 
estate, and those small, provincial towns where Albertine 
goes on her "sketching expeditions," which, in retrospect, 
become the stations of the cross on the itinerary of the 
sexual prowler. Through the windows of the restaurant of 
Rivebelle he sees an intoxicated reality; and it is through 
a window of Elstir's studio that he sees Albertine racing 
by. Looking out of the window of Saint-Loup's room, he 
sees the reflected shape of a hill that is to color all his 
memories of his stay at Doncieres. Window images 
proliferate in Proust and are dramatically pulled together 
by a final association of three windows. 

The linking of the "mother" window at Combray, and 
the two "homosexual" windows — the one at Montjouvain, 
and the one overlooking the Duchesse's courtyard — ^pro- 
vides a tension between two subjects, establishes a bond 
between two emotions that is reenforced again in a further 
association. In Venice, Marcel describes a particular win- 
dow at the hotel: 

On the piazza, the shadow that would have been cast at Com- 
bray by the linen-draper's awning and the barber's pole, turned 
into the tiny blue flowers scattered at its feet upon the desert 
of sun-scorched tiles by the silhouette of a Renaissance facade, 
which is not to say that, when the sun was hot, we were not 



obliged, in Venice as at Combray, to pull down the blinds 
between ourselves and the Canal, but they hung behind the 
quatrefoils and foliage of gothic windows. Of this sort was the 
window in our hotel behind the pillars of which my mother 
sat waiting for me, gazing at the Canal with a patience which 
she should not have displayed in the old days at Combray, at 
that time when, reposing in myself hopes which had never 
been realized, she was unwilling to let me see how much she 
loved me. Nowadays she was well aware that an apparent cold- 
ness on her part would alter nothing, and the affection she 
lavished upon me was like those forbidden foods which are 
no longer withheld from invalids, when it is certain that they 
are past recovery. To be sure, the humble details which gave 
an individuality to the window of my aunt Leonie's bedroom, 
seen from the Rue de I'Oiseau . . . the equivalent of all these 
things existed in this hotel in Venice . . . she [his mother] sent 
out to me, from the bottom of her heart, a love which stopped 
only where there was no longer any material substance to 
support it on the surface of her impassioned gaze which she 
brought as close to me as possible, which she tried to thrust 
forward to the advanced post of her lips, in a smile which 
seemed to be kissing me, in the framework and beneath the 
canopy of the more discreet smile of the arched window illu- 
minated by the midday sun; for these reasons . . . ever since 
then, whenever I see a cast of that window in a museum, I 
feel the tears starting to my eyes, it is simply because the 
window says to me the thing that touches me more than any- 
thing else in the world: "I remember your mother so well." 
(SCG 287-289) 

The correspondence between the Combray bedroom 
window and the window in Venice, both maternal shrines, 
is here made explicit. 



In the ultimate horror scene of Remembrance of Things 
Past, 3L scene whose implications project backward through 
four transparencies — the Venetian window, the window 
overlooking the Duchesse de Guermantes' courtyard, the 
Montjouvain window, and the window of Marcel's bed- 
room at Combray — ^we come upon the following passage: 

And I heard the cracking of a whip, probably made still more 
cutdng with nails, for I heard cries of pain. Then I noticed 
that this room had a small, round window opening on the hall- 
way, over which they had neglected to draw the curtain; tip- 
toeing in the darkness, I made my way softly to this window 
and diere, chained to a bed like Prometheus to his rock, and 
being beaten by Maurice with a cat-o*-nine-tails which was, 
as a matter of fact, studded with nails, I saw before me M. de 
Charlus, bleeding all over and covered with welts which 
showed that this was not the first time the torture had taken 
place. (PR 131) 

The "ultimate horror scene" for specific reasons. For, 
if, earlier "My Hell was all that Balbec . . ." (SCG 141), 
this further vision of Hell peculiarly transcends the per- 
sonal and fuses the sexual and social motifs of the novel. 
During a blackout. Marcel has taken refuge in a building 
that turns out to be a male brothel run by Jupien and sup- 
ported by Charlus. He is first made aware in this scene of 
Saint-Loup's homosexuality — a suspicion confirmed when 
Saint-Loup carelessly leaves behind his croix de guerre at 
Jupien's. The brothel scene is immediately followed by the 
bombing of Paris. The Paradise of Aunt Leonie's garden 



has led, by inevitable stages, to a vision of Hell that is, 
psychologically, the product of inversion (the brothel), 
and, socially, the coup de grace of Europe's ruling classes 
(the bombing). Stupidity, corruption, malevolence, self- 
ishness, disease — they are combined in two acts of aggres- 
sion: the beating of Charlus, the end product of centuries 
of civilization, and the attempted destruction of Paris, 
the historical and material center of the same civilization. 
It is no accident that three out of the four major male 
representatives of the French aristocracy in Proust's novel 
— Prince Gilbert de Guermantes (who spends a night 
with Morel at a house of prostitution at Maineville), Saint- 
Loup, and Baron Charlus — are all depicted at one point or 
another as patrons of male prostitutes. The one male Guer- 
mantes who eludes this category, the Due, substitutes for 
it a lifelong obsession with adultery. 

In The Captive, at a moment of great anxiety. Marcel 
experiences the following: 

Suddenly, in the silence of the night, I was startled by a sound 
apparently insignificant which, however, filled me widi terror, 
the sound of Albertine's window being violendy opened. 
(C II 546) 

The sound, apparently insignificant, is of the utmost 
importance. It signals the departure of Albertine — an 
action suspected, dismissed, then actual, like Marcel's vision 
of the Persian church at Balbec, which is oriental in im- 



agination, prosaic in reality, and, then, partly Persian in 
fact. But between the opening of this window, when Al- 
bertine makes the preparations for her departure, and her 
actual escape, she and Marcel take a trip to Versailles. 
Hearing a sound they cannot at first identify, Albertine 
says, "Why . . . there is an aeroplane . . . high up in the 
sky . . ." (C II 551-552) 

It is at the violent opening of a window in his own 
house that Marcel suffers in anticipation the departure of 
Albertine. Like the other windows, this one sets the scene 
for a future surprise; Albertine not only parts from Mar- 
cel, she departs from life itself. This image of a window 
being violently opened, which fills Marcel "with terror," 
is thematically linked to the earlier brothel scene. Each 
one — for Marcel and Albertine have quarreled about her 
relationship to Andree — involves the rediscovery of in- 
version, a real or symbolic reference to the French aristoc- 
racy (Guermantes, croix de guerre, Versailles) and the 
presence of an aeroplane (the bombing of Paris, Albertine's 
remark about the plane "high in the sky"). 

Like the ringing of the garden gate bell — a sound heard 
both at the beginning and the end of Proust's novel — the 
bedroom window at Combray becomes a repetitive motif. 
It narrows into a "peephole" behind which a once unim- 
agined, and now desired and detested action takes place, 
transforming the childhood pictures of legend and history 
projected by Marcel's magic lantern into a horrifying 
vision of sexual love. 


IV : The Parties 

For every death simplifies existence for others, relieves 
them of the need of scrupulously showing their gratitude 
or the obligation to pay calls. 

(PR 323) 



HE TWO BOOKS whosc titles crop up most frequently 
in Proust are the Arabian Nights and Saint-Simon's Mem- 
oires of court life under Louis XIV at Versailles. Remem- 
brance of Things Past draws sustenance from opposite 
poles: a book of exotic tales (whose genie emerges from a 
magic lamp, as Combray emerges from a cup of tea), and 



a masterpiece of social documentation. In Swann's Way 
and Within a Budding Grove, we are in a world of em- 
anation; in The Guermantes Way, the lenses turn out- 
ward. The claims of the world are being investigated. 

Proust's portrait of society has charm, wit, and grace — 
the cornerstones of civilized intercourse. It is, like love, 
however, a Pandora's box. Below the lid, in place of jeal- 
ousy, ambiguity, and deceit, there lurk equally powerful 
monsters ready to spring: snobbery, mendacity, and fa- 
tuity. It is remarkable that Proust, having reached so 
dour a view of society, could reconstruct its original allure- 
ments. We are led into the labyrinth, dazzled by the lights, 
the conversation, the flashing of jewels. At the end of the 
maze is a cul-de-sac: society is no more rewarding than 
the people who make it up. 

Three social groups are investigated by Proust: the bour- 
geoisie, the aristocracy, and their servants. The bourgeoisie 
is divided into the provincial characters of Combray, and 
the nouveau riche of Paris: the Verdurin "clan"; the 
bureaucrats, like the Bontempses; and the up-and-coming 
adventurers, originally proletarian or middle-class, like 
Morel and Odette. The aristocracy are the nobility and 
royalty, who have no significant distinction for Proust's 
purposes. Servants are exemplified primarily by Frangoise, 
but also by Celeste Albaret (Proust's servant in actual life 
whom he made a character in his novel, presumably to 
avoid the easy identification of her with Frangoise), the 
Due and Duchesse de Guermantes' butler; Charlus' foot- 



man; Marcel's family butler; and a group of anonymous 
"herd" characters such as porters, chambermaids, foot- 
men, chauffeurs, gardeners, coachmen, and so on. Of all 
these characters, only Frangoise is drawn in depth. 

Parties are Proust's main device for exhibiting social 
behavior; they are set like lozenges in the midst of the 
adolescent reverie, psychological analysis, and metaphysical 
speculation that form the greater part of the book. Each 
one is a solid block of realistic and satirical observation, 
contrasting sharply in style w^ith the "interior" Proust. In- 
numerable minor social occasions are scattered throughout 
Remembrance of Things Past, and eight major ones of 
considerable length. Tw^o of these occur during Sw^ann's 
courtship of Odette; the other six belong to the narrator. 
They take place in the follow^ing order: 

A dinner at the Verdurins' (SW 361-382) 
An evening party at Mme. de Saint-Euverte's (SW 


An afternoon reception at Mme. de Villeparisis' 

(GW I 256-391) 
A dinner at the Duchesse de Guer mantes' (GW II 

An evening reception at the Princesse de Guermantes' 

(CP I 47-170) 
A dinner party at La Raspeliere (the Verdurins' 

country estate) (CP II 63-169) 



A musicale at Quai Conti (the Verdurins' house in 

Paris) (C II 304-444) 
An afternoon reception at the Princesse de Guer- 

mantes' (PR 177-402) 

The non-Verdurin parties — they cannot quite be called 
the Guermantes parties, since Mme. de Saint-Euverte, the 
hostess of the first, does not belong to that illustrious 
family — ascend the social scale in a definite order: Saint- 
Euverte, de Villeparisis, the Duchesse de Guermantes, 
the Princesse de Guermantes. They indicate again that 
Marcel and Swann are two facets of a single character, 
for this progression has social significance within the 
structure of the novel, and the first party, at Madame 
Saint-Euverte 's, is attended by Swann, while the second, 
at Mme. de Villeparisis', is attended by Marcel. 

At the last reception at the Princesse de Guermantes' 
that concludes the novel, the Princesse is none other than 
Mme. Verdurin, a persistent monkey who has climbed 
the social ladder rung by rung. The middle-class pre- 
tenders and the pretentious aristocrats, now hardly dis- 
tinguishable from one another, join hands in a final, 
macabre dance. 

Jealousy is the controlling emotion of love, snobbery 
of society. The character most free of the first emotion 
ironically makes possible Proust's exhaustive examina- 
tion of the second. Marcel's grandmother, in a typical 

[66 1 


Proustian surprise, facilitates Marcel's career in society 
by introducing him to Mme. de Villeparisis at Balbec. 
Mme. de Villeparisis, in turn, introduces Marcel both to 
Saint-Loup and Charlus. Marcel's grandmother is involved 
in a further irony: though she unv^ittingly sets Marcel's 
feet on the v^rong path, it is she from v^hom Marcel de- 
rives those moral values by which society is ultimately 
to be judged. We have, once more, the paradoxical notion 
of the "cause" and the "cure" combined. In this case, they 
are not double traits of a temperament but an irony of 
circumstance. Marcel's grandmother shoves her lack of 
social pretension by not reintroducing herself to Mme. de 
Villeparisis, w^ith v^hom she went to school as a girl. It 
is Mme. de Villeparisis who seeks her out and makes the 
Guermantes "contagion" possible for Marcel. 

Marcel's grandmother is the moral center of his social 
vision. She is the single person in Proust's novel who 
is capable of feeling human love and who does not 
undergo a transformation of character in the course of 
the book. She is the steady beacon in the wilderness. 
Neither ironic nor sentimental, she is the pivot of the 
Good around which the demons, giants, and monsters 
are made to whirl. Marcel's mother differs from her in a 
specific way; from our viewpoint, rather than his, she is 
involved in the etiology of his illness. But a great am- 
biguity clouds the issue. After the grandmother's death, 
Marcel's mother is meant to take on her own mother's 
qualities; she carries her bag, wears her muff, quotes from 



Madame de Sevigne, and her love for Marcel becomes un- 
qualified by therapeutic motives. Marcel's mother is clearly 
herself until the grandmother dies. Then, we have one of 
those Proustian transfigurations in mirrors. She becomes 
shadov^ in two ways: by an alternation in the nature of 
her character and by a switch in her function in the whole 
scheme of the novel. Earlier, she establishes the emotional 
precedent on which Marcel's later relationships are 
founded. The good-night kiss she withholds and then 
bestows is repeated in Marcel's affair with Albertine, who 
refuses to kiss Marcel at Balbec and more than willingly 
kisses him, to his surprise, in Paris. He spends a great deal 
of thought on the reasons for the possible change, and he 
has good reason, considering his past, to do so. Moreover, 
in Marcel's indecisiveness at departing from Venice, in 
which he allows his mother to go off alone, and then at 
the last minute joins her, we have a repetition of his 
obsessive doubt in regard to Albertine. Marcel's mother 
loses her unconsciously projected "Albertine side" some- 
where in the middle of the novel and is changed into the 
nonsexually charged character of the grandmother. Mar- 
cel's mother is equivocal, radiating at one time the 
emotional impact of Albertine, at another the beneficent 
influence of the grandmother. 

Marcel's grandmother values only individual distinction. 
Social classes pursue the vested interests of a stratified 
society, and hold a variety of misconceptions in regard to 
each other. Marcel's family thinks of Swann only as a 



country neighbor married to a "loose" woman so far be- 
neath him that Marcel's mother, a kind person indeed, 
refuses to meet Odette. That Swann is a friend of the 
Prince of Wales and an intimate of the Guermantes carries 
no weight. It goes unrecognized, or, if it is acknowledged, 
is reduced to "social climbing." Combray's view of society 
is as rigid as a Hindu's. People are born in fixed stations 
which can be changed only by a "brilliant career" or a 
" 'good' marriage." Swann seems to have no career and 
has made an abysmal marriage. He is, to Combray, a rich 
stockbroker's son forever. 

Odette's idea of the fashionable world is one of "smart 
places" where the "smart set" gather. It is not unlike a 
more contemporary version of "cafe society." A mistaken 
version — to begin with, at least — it tends to become true 
not because of Odette's acumen but because of the stupidity 
of social distinctions in themselves. It is a naive misappre- 
hension of a sophisticated truth. When Odette starts her 
"salon," Bergotte is her one social inducement, and it is 
around him that the civil servants, upper-class bourgeois 
wives, and bureaucrats gather. 

The greatest misconceptions of all are the notions the 
middle class and the aristocracy hold of each other. They 
are equally fantastic: 

Nine tenths of the men of the Faubourg Saint-Germain ap- 
pear to the average man of the middle class simply as alcoholic 
wasters (which, individually, they not infrequently are) whom, 
therefore, no respectable person would dream of asking to 



dinner. The middle class fixes its standard, in this respect, too 
high, for the failings of these men would never prevent their 
being received with every mark of esteem in houses which 
it, the middle class, may never enter. And so sincerely do they 
believe that the middle class knows this that they effect a 
simplicity in speaking of their own affairs and a tone of dis- 
paragement of their friends . . . which make the misunder- 
standing complete. . . . 

. . . the two worlds take as fantastic a view of one another as 
the inhabitants of a town situated at one end of Balbec Bay 
have of the town at the other end: from Rivebelle you can just 
see Marcouville I'Orgueilleuse; but even that is deceptive, for 
you imagine that you are seen from Marcouville, where, as a 
matter of fact, the splendours of Rivebelle are almost wholly 
invisible. (WBG I 395-396) 

Neither world survives Proust's inspection. In discuss- 
ing the middle-class world of the Blochs, he says: 

... if, in "society," people are judged by a standard (which 
is incidentally absurd) and according to false but fixed rules 
... in the subdivisions of middle class life, on the other hand, 
the dinners, the family parties all turn upon certain people 
who are pronounced good company, amusing, and who in 
"society" would not survive a second evening. Moreover, in 
such an environment where the artificial values of the aris- 
tocracy do not exist, their place is taken by distinctions even 
more stupid. (WBG II 96-97) 

Social pretensions affect the aristocracy to the same de- 
gree as the bourgeoisie, with one qualification, of which 



Saint-Loup is the chief example: aristocrats are not viti- 
ated by the dread of being considered inferior because the 
idea has never occurred to them. (By the same token, v^hen 
Marcel asks Charlus v^hy Mme. de Villeparisis, v^ho is a 
Guermantes, occupies an inferior position in society, 
Charlus misunderstands the question, and discusses her 
marriage to a man less noble than herself. He seems un- 
aware of her "inferior" position in the sense Marcel means, 
which is best described by the word demode. To Charlus, 
she is a Guermantes and his aunt. That is sufficient.) 

On the other hand, the variety and energy of middle- 
class types is more commendable than a kind of physical 
standardization of the aristocracy, who are almost in- 
variably ugly, with the exception of the Guermantes. In 
discussing the "little band" of girls at Balbec, Marcel says: 

The shrewd old money-changers from whose loins these 
Dianas and these nymphs had sprung seemed to me to have 
been the greatest of statuaries. (WBG II 200) 

Albertine's family is as proud of its last name "Simonet" 
being spelled with one "n" as a Montmorency might be 
of his title. Morel pledges Marcel never to divulge the fact 
that he is a valet's son. Mme. de Villeparisis secretly longs 
for Mme. Leroi to attend her receptions because Mme. 
Leroi "cuts" her. Gilberte Saint-Loup is attracted to the 
Duchesse de Guermantes because the latter has, in the past, 
refused to receive her. The Duchesse, in reverse, admires, 
at the end, only the world of actresses. The daughter of 



Berma, the greatest actress of her time, wants only to use 
her mother's reputation to gain admission to the world 
of the Guermantes. Snobbery, like love, leads to universal 
confusion and disappointment. 

If the kindness of individuals — and here we judge from 
the viewpoint of Marcel's grandmother — is the only true 
standard of behavior, neither Saint-Loup nor the Duchesse 
de Guermantes can pass muster. And, in their cases, par- 
ticularly, a telling distinction is drawn between manners 
and morals. Saint-Loup, un-selfconsciously exhibiting the 
inherited grace of the nobility, is so considerate that he 
races across the top of a banquette in a crowded restaurant 
to put an overcoat over Marcel's shoulders to protect him 
from the cold. Both the impulse and the acrobatic agility 
with which the action is accomplished are "aristocratic." 
Yet, he denies Marcel a photograph of the Duchesse, the 
most precious thing in the world to Marcel at the time. 
Saint-Loup is kindness itself to Marcel's grandmother dur- 
ing her illness, yet he refuses to be introduced to Odette at 
Mme. de Villeparisis' and is hideously cruel to his own 
mother. Similarly, Mme de Guermantes, whose grief at 
the death of Saint-Loup is one of the few genuine emo- 
tions of her life, declines to intervene for him during his 
lifetime to save him from going to Morocco, a task she 
might easily have performed because of her great friend- 
ship with General de Monserfeuil. She suddenly pretends 
to know the general only slightly; it is not immoral to 
interfere, it is too much trouble. 



The social scenes, followed by others of a recognizable 
pattern, have the quality of theses superseded by antitheses. 
Parties are immediately contrasted with human crises that 
involve the fateful moments of individual lives. After the 
afternoon reception at Mme. de Villeparisis', which ends 
with the hostess pretending to be asleep so as not to have 
to say goodbye to Bloch — a Jew and a Dreyfusard in- 
vited only because of his access to "theatre people" who 
might be useful at a later reception — we have two in- 
structive scenes. In the first, right after the party, Charlus, 
walking down the street with Marcel, abandons him for 
a drunken cabman. Another little piece of camouflage 
concealing Charlus' sexual life is torn away. The second 
scene takes place in the Champs-Elysees. MarceFs grand- 
mother goes to the public toilet. This toilet is run by a 
woman who calls herself a "Marquise" and who says to 
the park keeper in reference to her clientele: "I choose 
my customers. I don't let everyone into my little parlors 
as I call them." (GW I 426) 

Marcel's grandmother, who has overheard the "Mar- 
quise's" statement, makes the most pointed of all the 
social observations in Proust: 

Could anything have been more typical of the Guermantes, 
or the Verdurins and their little circle? (GW I 427-428) 

We are shocked less by her comparing the "Marquise" 
to the Guermantes than by the fact that she makes no dis- 
tinction between the Guermantes and the Verdurins. 



This moral contrast of social versus individual life is 
repeated again in a minor key a few moments later, vs^hen 
Marcel takes his grandmother, w^ho has suffered a stroke, 
to see Professor E., a famous doctor. The doctor barely has 
time to examine her properly. He is in a hurry. He is 
dining, appropriately, with the Minister of Commerce. 

The most definitive version of this repeated lesson occurs 
after the dinner at the Duchesse de Guermantes'. Swann 
pays a call on the Due and Duchesse before they go on to 
a costume ball. Swann awkwardly reveals that he is suffer- 
ing from cancer and has only a few months to live. The 
Due and Duchesse, preoccupied with the costume ball, 
pretend Swann is exaggerating and, being in a hurry, bid 
him the platitudinous farewells of social convention. The 
Due then discovers that the Duchesse is wearing black 
shoes with a red dress. The Due goes back to the house 
and fetches the red shoes. Hurrying Swann away, the Due 
finds time to satisfy a pecadillo of fashion. There is in 
this scene a failure of standards all round, for Swann, the 
most delicate of men, is here too blunt. The coarseness of 
the graveyard is on him — the forms are less meaningful 
than we thought. Self-interest on the one hand, and death 
on the other make a mockery of civilized behavior. The 
disorder of life is not counterbalanced by the standards 
of society but is merely reflected in them at another level. 
That level, disappointingly, lies not at a depth but on the 

r 74 1 


What Proust has to say about society is not new but in- 
comparable. His ability to dramatize, the reproduction 
of speech, attitude, and manner, and the accurate obser- 
vation of every social appurtenance — clothes, rooms, 
jewels, monocles, beards, furniture — all have the authority 
of a master — a master mimic as well as observer. The 
maliciousness and wit of the Duchesse, the bad punning 
of Cottard, the foredoomed timidity of Saniette, the aca- 
demic tiresomeness of Brichot, the migraines, dislocated 
jaw, and false teeth of Mme. Verdurin, the painted flowers 
above which Mme. de Villeparisis greets her guests — all 
of it is set down with the double felicity of a great por- 
trait painter and a first-rate playwright. The bourgeoisie 
gobble up the aristocracy, a quick mastication; the aristoc- 
racy absorb the bourgeoisie, a long digestion. Proust's 
book has been described often enough as the decline and 
fall of Europe's pre-World War I aristocracy. More ac- 
curately, it describes that moment, socially speaking, when 
a blood transfusion follows a bloodletting. The middle 
class pumped energy and money into a distinguished 
corpse. It is Proust's task to pursue vulgarity and sham 
down the darkest drains. The aristocracy and middle class, 
so distinct to themselves, are brothers, finally, under the 
skin. Birth and money, equally powerful talismans, in- 
variably seek each other. Brought to the marketplace, they 
are exchangeable. 

Exact, comic, relentless, Proust's social satire has the 
deadly accuracy of Daumier and the vitality of Hogarth. 



Imperative to the scheme of his novel, fascinating as doc- 
umentary in themselves, Proust's social exhibitions lead us 
to tv^o great catastrophes that have their initial germina- 
tions in the groups of people wt have been watching — 
the Dreyfus case and World War I. Society is, after all, 

The Dreyfus case is peculiarly modern. Civil govern- 
ment was threatened by the army; anti-Semitism was used 
as a weapon of concealment. Not a mere matter of cul- 
pability in high places, it was the first great national 
scandal in which politics and society could no longer be 
divorced. France was torn in two; and though a genuine 
moral issue was involved, each fragment of the national 
body followed its own predisposed interests — of class, 
money, and power. Proust discusses it both as a political 
and a social event, and reveals not the fatuity of justice 
— a reality in the Dreyfus case, and one to which Proust 
was personally committed — but the fatuity of human 
conceptions of it. 

A public display of self-interest, the Dreyfus case broke 
the power of the army, the aristocracy, and, to a lesser 
degree, the Church. It brought stupidity to a national 
pitch. Even those on the "right" side were capable, as 
always, of cravenness and irrationality. Proust understood 
well the connection between political power and social 
interest, and while his main attack is on the bigotry of 



the anti-Dreyfusards, he is contemptuous of the fanatic 
partisanship on both sides. 

Two rival salons develop out of the Dreyfus case. Mme. 
Verdurin, a Dreyfusard, is temporarily out of the running, 
but surrounded by her faithful "clan," she reaps an ulti- 
mate social benefit from the case: 

Mme. Verdurin, by the bond of Dreyfusism, had attracted to 
her house certain writers of distinction who for the moment 
were of no advantage to her socially, because they were Drey- 
fusards. But polidcal passions are like all the rest, they do 
not last. ... It was thus that, at each political crisis, at each 
artistic revival, Mme. Verdurin had collected one by one, like a 
bird building its nest, the several items, useless for the moment, 
of what would one day be her Salon. The Dreyfus case had 
passed, Anatole France remained. (C II 318-319) 

Odette, vaguely "Nationalist," was felt to hold "sound 
opinions." Married to a Jew — Swann's conversion mat- 
tered little in the Dreyfus case — she got credit for patriot- 
ism and disinterestedness: 

Mme. Swann had won by this atdtude the privilege of mem- 
bership in several of the women's leagues that were beginning 
to be formed in anti-semidc society, and had succeeded in 
making friends with various members of the aristocracy. 
(GW I 346) 

On opposite sides of the fence, Odette and Mme. Ver- 
durin are still two sides of the same coin. Mme. Verdurin, 



for all her "liberalism," is a firm member of her social 
group: "[Odette] was only following the example of 
Mme. Verdurin, in whom a middle-class anti-semitism, 
latent hitherto, had awakened and grown to a positive 
fury." (GW I 346) 

The scales are balanced: a temporary social mistake in 
strategy, the result of stupidity on the part of Mme. Ver- 
durin, and a social success, fired in the crucible of a con- 
venient political tragedy on the part of Odette. 

The absurd depths to which passions descended at the 
time are illustrated in an exchange between the Guer- 
mantes' butler, who is against Dreyfus, and Marcel's but- 
ler, who is for: 

Ours let it be understood that Dreyfus was guilty, the Guer- 
mantes' butler that he was innocent. This was done not to 
conceal their personal convictions, but from cunning, and in 
the keenness of their rivalry. Our butler, being uncertain 
whether the fresh trial would be ordered, wished beforehand, 
in the event of failure, to deprive the Duke's butler of the joy 
of seeing a just cause vanquished. The Duke's butler thought 
that, in the event of a refusal, ours would be more indignant 
at the detention on the Devil's Isle of an innocent man. (GW 
I 407-408) 

The Dreyfus case, despite its wide ramifications, un- 
covers the idiocy of social pretension and the meanness 
of human motives. The Duchesse despises the whole affair; 
she is forced to meet women at patriotic salons to whom 

[78 1 


she would not have nodded before the case started. The 
Due loses the presidency of the Jockey Club because his 
wife is not considered "anti-Dreyfusard" enough. He 
blames his nonelection on his association with Swann. 
Saint-Loup, a passionate but temporary Dreyfusard, is 
influenced by his relationship to Rachel, a Jewish actress. 
Losing interest in her, he loses interest in the case. The 
Prince de Guermantes, an anti-Semite, momentarily re- 
covering the traditional standards of honor by which he 
was brought up, becomes a Dreyfusard in spite of his 
prejudices. In the end, he does not have the courage to 
back up his convictions. Mme. Sazerat, back at Combray, 
refuses to bow to Marcel's father because she thinks he 
is anti-Dreyfus. Though there is some truth in this, Mme. 
Sazerat is more smug than just. Swann and Bloch, both 
Jews, are pro-Dreyfus. The Due feels that Swann has 
betrayed his class, that Jewishness triumphs over moral 
delicacy, when, in truth, the situation is the other way 
around. Snobbery, a more personal passion than justice, 
is the prism through which a shattering historical event 
is seen. 

One great social axiom pervades Proust, the geometric 
progression of misconceptions. The same absurdities of 
misunderstanding, often fatal, occur between individuals, 
social groups, governments, and nations. 

As the Duchesse de Guermantes surprises us by the 
depth of her grief at Saint-Loup's death, so the Verdurins 



are shown suddenly in a sympathetic light. There is in 
Proust always a resistance to the evident. Who knows 
what further fact will cancel out a conclusion ? The Ver- 
durins use Saniette, the paleographer, as a whipping boy, 
mocking him in front of the other members of the "clan," 
and, more cruelly, in front of strangers. Shy, lacking self- 
confidence, Saniette is the perfect dupe. After the musicale 
in which Charlus is humiliated by Mme. Verdurin and 
Morel, and rescued by the Queen of Naples, the Verdurins 
discover that Saniette is ill and bankrupt. Generously, 
they give him an allowance for the rest of his life and go 
to great lengths to conceal the fact that they are the donors. 
Dr. Cottard is the intermediary; the pretense is that 
Saniette has been left a legacy in Princess Sherbatoff's 
will. Saniette never knows that his true benefactors are 
the Verdurins. There may be a touch of condescension in 
this, it may merely be a gesture of remorse; nevertheless, 
Mme. Verdurin, who has just ruined Charlus' life, is 
shown, immediately after, as capable of an act of kind- 
ness, and one that reflects no glory on her. We get a new 
glimpse into a character we thought motivated only by 

Proust's entire vision of social life is colored by an am- 
biguity more pervasive than the twists and turns of char- 
acter. We are presented with princesses who turn into 
drabs; the desire, in the first place, for princesses to be 
more royal than perhaps is possible undercuts the point 
of the revelation. The disappointed have more reason 



than most to inflate what they originally desired, as long 
as they live by disappointment. Proust's satire, often wildly 
funny, is still grounded in a reluctant melancholy. Re- 
linquishing the very myths by which he lives, anxious not 
to perpetrate others, he remains an instinctive myth- 
maker. Idealistic but truthful, he is caught in the cross- 
currents of the irreconcilable. The difference between the 
intensity of an improbable desire and the intensity of its 
real frustration can outweigh the distinction between de- 
sire and fulfillment. What one wishes never turns out 
to be true. But, then, how true is what one wished? By 
constantly asking the question, Proust minimizes the force 
of his original statement. Proust may have asked more of 
society than society pretends to give. 

And, if we look closely, we can see where this ambiguity 
originates. No matter how contemptible the bourgeosie 
and the aristocracy turn out to be, we cannot rid ourselves 
as readers of the impression they made upon us before 
we were meant to see through the falsity of the impres- 
sion. The world of Combray has moral values in which 
the good, the kind, and the generous operate. Combray 
is not only a straitlaced litde Jansenist enclave but a place 
where a sense of what is appropriately human and fitting 
also exists and sheds some light. Marcel's mother and 
grandmother, reared in a narrow dogma, are neither nar- 
row nor dogmatic. It is impossible not to see their values 
reflected in part in the other Combray characters, and in 
the nature of the town's life itself. 



The aristocracy, too, have virtues. Grace and manner 
cast a spell that is not quite broken v^hen wc are show^n 
the nastiness of truths that underlie them. Proust is in 
the position of having done his task too well. Like 
Milton's Paradise Lost, in v^hich Beelzebub is more inter- 
esting than God, Proust's bedazzlements outweigh his 
lucidity. We are meant, like the narrator, to be blinded by 
diaphanous veils and then see through them. We cannot 
quite brush them from our eyes, and v^e have reason to 
suspect that he cannot either. Seen retrospectively, Swann's 
Way and Within a Budding Grove v^ere w^ritten after dis- 
illusionment had set in. Yet both volumes create worlds 
more powerful than those that follow them. Proust is an 
extraordinary satirist and a superb thinker; but he is, 
when all is said and done, the great master of emanation. 
In Swanns Way and Within a Budding Grove, his boy- 
hood and his adolescence provide material particularly 
suited to his supreme gifts. There is no world Proust can- 
not command; it is these two worlds, nevertheless, that 
are inimitable. 

Understanding Proust's ultimate argument, we do not 
quite accede to it. Marcel's original impressions of Saint- 
Loup and the Duchesse de Guermantes are more lasting 
than their decline into vice and banality. 

The social scenes in Proust have a value in the scheme 
of the novel not intrinsic to themselves. Set in huge blocks, 
incidents and occasions that occupy a short time span — 



hours or a day — assume a spatial mass out of proportion 
to the chronicle in which they are embedded. They are, 
literally, time-stoppers. The presumably wasted time that 
Marcel spends at these social occasions has a triple effect. 

First, they make us aware of time in a special way by 
confusing us as to duration and speed. Hundreds of pages 
go by at which the activities of one evening are described. 
On the other hand, we can never quite figure out how 
many years separate Marcel's withdrawal from society and 
his last reappearance in it at the party that concludes The 
Past Recaptured. How long does he spend at the sana- 
torium before he returns to Paris } We do not know. Yet 
the day that Albertine is brought back from the Trocadero 
by Frangoise, and the day of Charlus' disgrace at Mme. 
Verdurin's are the same one. In the English text, this day 
takes up 287 pages. The action of the novel, clocked to 
an insidious stopwatch, successfully divorces the reader 
from an habitual view of chronological time. 

Secondly, we are forced to another conclusion. Could 
these times really be wasted since they form such a huge 
mass of the novel? If Marcel's decision to be an artist 
stems from a special awareness of the nature of time, the 
very time he wastes, as long as it is in his novel, cannot 
be truly wasted. We do not mind his not going home to 
write and staying a little longer at the Duchesse de Guer- 
mantes'. We know something he refrains from telling us : 
he has written the very scene we are reading. 

Third, these two notions in combination lead us to a 



third. It is the paradoxical role of the artist to be nour- 
ished on what irritates and what destroys. Vinteuil's 
greatness is clearly defined by Proust as an outcome, in 
part, of his suffering. Social life may be boring, and de- 
scribing one dinner party more valuable than attending 
another. But we cannot quite get past the fact that, with- 
out attending one, dinner parties would have no value 

In short, if social life had not been disenchanting. Mar- 
cel might well have spent the rest of his life as a dandy 
and a snob, transfixed by the dream of worldly success. 
We are in the strange position of deploring those tempta- 
tions that kept him from being a writer when those temp- 
tations are the very things he is writing about. The 
negative value of social life in a book whose main theme 
is a writer's search for his vocation becomes positive in 
its very depiction. 

If homosexuals make a particular biological point in 
Proust, Jews perform the same service on a social scale, 
and one of Proust's most original observations is the par- 
allel he draws between the psychological patterns of the 
homosexual and the social position of the Jews. Discussing 
homosexuals, Proust says: 

. . . their love . . . springs not from an ideal of beauty which 
they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews 
again (save some who will associate only with others of their 



race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated 
pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who 
are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their com- 
pany, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their con- 
descension . . . having finally been invested, by a persecution 
similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral charac- 
teristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous . . . 
taking pleasure in recalHng that Socrates was one of them- 
selves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, with- 
out reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosex- 
uality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the 
disgrace alone makes the crime. . . . (CP I 22-23) 

In Bloch and Charlus, we get collateral life histories. A 
middle-class Jew, garrulous, iconoclastic, and often gross, 
over a lifetime becomes civilized. The rebel joins tlie 
forces against which he rebelled. Bloch ends up a famous 
and rich man, at ease in the world. Though he has made a 
cult of his dead father, he marries his daughter to a 
Catholic and is absorbed into the upper reaches of society: 

. . . Discretion, in both word and deed, had come to him along 
with social standing and age, with a sort of social age, if one 
may use the term. It is true that Bloch had formerly been in- 
discreet, as well as incapable of kindliness or friendly counsel. 
But some difficulties and some qualities are not so much at- 
tached to this or that individual or to this or that moment of 
existence, considered from the social point of view. They are, 
as it were, exterior to the individual, who passed through their 
beam of light as through various pre-existent, general and in- 
evitable solstices. (PR 312) 



Charlus, a homosexual aristocrat, descends the scale 
in the opposite order. The greatest social lion of his day, 
his pride and arrogance lead to his rebuff by Mme. Ver- 
durin at the concert he arranges for Morel at her house. 
Broken by Morel's leaving him, later suffering a stroke, 
he turns into that saddest of all social creatures, a former 
giant grateful for any attention. 

Bloch's pompousness, Charlus' overweening pride, even 
Morel's conscious and self-aggrandizing cupidity, offset 
by other human qualities, are made understandable in the 
long run. Proust's view of society and the people who play 
its game is one of the most damaging on record. Yet, there 
are no contemptible characters in Proust, not because he 
is compassionate but because he is honest. He is able to 
transform Charlus, the least promising of all candidates 
— a social snob, homosexual, dandy, a man capricious to 
the point of madness — into a hero of gigantic proportions 
who has been compared, on more than one occasion, to 
Falstafl. He is an outsized comic-tragic figure. Proust 
shows us every ugliness of Charlus'. But Charlus is re- 
deemed not by virtue of his intelligence, which is immense, 
but by a simple quality: a good heart. 

At the vast spectacles of social display in Proust, a 
benign spirit hovers over the tables, salons, and gardens. 
It is Marcel's grandmother, more merciless than Mme. 
Verdurin or the Duchesse de Guermantes could ever be, 
judging every social malice from the unassailable view- 
point of human love. 


V : The Steeples 

An hour is a vase . . ." 
(PR 212) 


NE DAY, walking along the Guermantes way, the 
weather darkens, and Marcel and his parents are given a 
lift in the local doctor's carriage. Dr. Percepied, before re- 
turning to Combray, has to pay a call at Martinville-le-Sec. 
At a bend in the road. Marcel has a strange experience. 
The twin steeples of Martinville church, seen from the 
moving carriage jogging along the winding country roads, 
join with the steeples of a third church, that of Vieuxvicq, 



in the distance, and begin to perform a complicated dance 
on the horizon. The sun is setting; the steeples — changing 
aspects of color, position, and shape — bob up and down, 
jump forward and back, in complex relationships that 
fascinate the boy. He has the feeling that something more 
than he can penetrate or understand "lay behind that 
mobility, that luminosity, something they seemed at once 
to contain and conceal." (SW 258) Suddenly, the carriage 
draws up outside the church at Martinville. Marcel is 
astonished at the illusions of perspective that made the 
steeples seem so far away in space, so distant in time. He 
feels an extreme pleasure in having watched them. The 
doctor makes his visit and, when they start out again. 
Marcel, sitting next to the coachman, who is disinclined 
to talk, tries to recall his experience: 

I was obliged, in default of other society, to fall back on my 
own, and to attempt to recapture the vision of my steeples. 
And presently their outlines and their sunlit surface, as though 
they had been a sort of rind, were stripped apart; a little of 
what they had concealed from me became apparent; an idea 
came into my mind which had not existed for me a moment 
earlier, framed itself in words in my head; and the pleasure 
with which the first sight of them, just now, had filled me was 
so much enhanced that, overpowered by a sort of intoxication, 
I could no longer think of anything but them. (SW 259) 

Marcel writes a short essay on the visual phenomenon 
of the steeples, which he leaves in a hamper in the carriage: 



... at the moment when ... I had finished writing it, I found 
such a sense of happiness, feh it had so entirely reUeved my 
mind of the obsession of the steeples, and of the mystery which 
they concealed, that, as though I myself were a hen and had 
just laid an egg, I began to sing at the top of my voice. (SW 

Many years later, driving in another carriage, v^ith Mme. 
de Villeparisis and his grandmother, in the outskirts of 
Balbec, he has a similarly peculiar experience. As they 
come through a v^ood tov^ard Hudimesnil, a tov^n not far 
from Balbec, Marcel "is overv^helmed v^ith that profound 
happiness which I had not often felt since Combray; hap- 
piness analagous to that v^hich had been given me by — 
among other things — the steeples of Martinville." (WBG 
II 20) This time, he is looking at three trees: 

I could see them plainly, but my mind felt they were conceal- 
ing something which it had not grasped, as when things are 
placed out of our reach, so that our fingers, stretched out at 
arm's-length, can only touch for a moment their outer surface, 
and can take hold of nothing ... I recognized that kind of 
pleasure which requires ... a certain effort on the part of the 
mind . . . that pleasure, the object of which I could but dimly 
feel, that pleasure which I must create myself, I experienced 
only on rare occasions, but on each of these it seemed to me 
that the things which had happened in the interval were of 
but scant importance, and that in attaching myself to the reality 
of that pleasure alone I could at length begin to lead a new 
Ufe ... I sat there, thinking of nothing, then with my thoughts 
collected, compressed and strengthened I sprang farther for- 



ward in the direction of the trees, or rather in that inverse 
direction at the end of which I could see them growing within 
myself. I felt again behind them the same object, known to 
me and yet vague, which I could not bring nearer. (WBG II 

The three steeples and the three trees carry a double- 
weighted meaning. They each produce a happiness like 
those Marcel experiences when he has an involuntary 
memory. Yet, in the first case, he takes pleasure in the 
moving objects themselves and in the mystery they con- 
ceal: the steeples tell him that time and space may be dif- 
ferent from his consciousness of them. They do not lead 
him back to any past experience. In the second case, 
though the trees remind him of something, he is unable 
to dredge up any specific memory. Both the steeples and 
the trees are tantalizing suggestions of essences sealed up 
in matter, essences v^^hose meaning Marcel cannot quite 
discover. Moreover, the steeples and the trees are directly 
linked to Marcel's evolution as a v^riter. His great relief, 
after he sees the steeples, comes from v^riting a short de- 
scriptive essay. In describing the incident at Hudimesnil, 
he makes a revealing statement: "that pleasure, the ob- 
ject of which I could but dimly feel, that pleasure which I 
must create myself. . . ." 

The surfaces of reality hold imprisoned something more 
real than themselves. The name, the word, the thing — 
none is sufficient. 



A question formulates itself: By what process can the 
essences sealed up in matter be made to reveal themselves ? 

The body, struggling v^ith the unfamiliar, builds its 
cave at the Balbec hotel. Out of the hostile angles, surfaces, 
and depths, the distraught figure w^rests a room in v^hich 
he can lie dov^n and sleep. Next door, his guardian angel, 
his grandmother, is poised to hear his three knocks on 
the w2l\1, ready to come to his aid. Sound is dangerous, 
vision phantasmagoric; the night is interminable. An in- 
somniac in a spider web manipulates the threads until 
he is its comfortable victim. Their ends are attached to 
distant places, familiar figures, sacred images, dreams, 
notions. He threads the room about himself, spider and 
fly at once. The light is lifting. He can breathe at last. 
The room, once malignant, is growing benign. Habit is 
constructing its habitation. 

Time destroys. Memory preserves. Habit dulls. But habit 
is paradoxical and performs a double duty. The Combray 
bedroom has a high ceiling; the hotel bedroom a low one. 
As Marcel battles against the habit of sleeping in a high- 
ceilinged bedroom, he is, at the same time, forming the 
habit of sleeping in a room with a low ceiling. Habit 
enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think 
we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An ano- 
dyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps 
us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction 
the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us 



from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit 
— no matter how intense the suffering it causes — is the 
last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself 
against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use 
than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows 
us to live — by which Proust means it allows us to exist 
while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life. 

The personality that is nothing but a collection of habits 
has little claim to being called a personality at all. The 
Marcel who turns the bad nonhabit of a high ceiling into a 
good habit is still a creature tortured by a fear of experi- 
encing the unknown. To avoid it, he changes not the low 
ceiling but who he was. What enables him to do so is 
not remembering. This process of forgetting saves him 
from having to change who he is. 

Habit requires a basic condition, a repeated response to a 
repeated stimulus. In time, the response will occur even 
when the stimulus is inappropriate. Habit is a half-re- 
membered metaphor in which one term has lost its orig- 
inal relevance to the other. The sound becomes the thing; 
Pavlov's dog salivated at the sound of a bell. Habit is the 
enemy of memory for a simple reason: the metaphor of 
habit prevents the metaphor of memory from functioning. 

Why is memory a metaphor? Memory connects two 
things through some object or sensation by sensing a cor- 
respondence between them. How does it differ from 
habit? Habit disconnects the past stimulus from the pres- 
ent response. Memory seeks the connection. Everyone's 

r 92 1 


memory, therefore, contains millions of unique metaphors 
not necessarily discernible or rational. The assumption 
is, however, that no matter how different the connections 
may be, human emotions are basically similar. The scene 
Marcel sees in the Montjouvain window may be a unique 
experience. Yet, the discovery of a startling sexual secret 
in childhood would be practically universal. Similarly, 
rain brings back to Marcel the scent of lilac. It would not 
be difficult to transpose that sensation into a thousand 
analagous ones. 

Human emotions may be similar; people are not. The 
sad fact is that we all cannot remember the same things. 
Worse, we cannot remember what other people have for- 
gotten. Those are their secrets. Memory, which allows us 
by analogy to understand one another, also keeps us apart. 
The individual sensibility, in which each person is 
wrapped, as if in a cocoon, lures us on with the illusion of 
transparency, the belief in similarity. Actually, it is opaque, 
and what lies behind it is unknowably different. The 
immaterial soul of Albertine rising in her sleep as Marcel 
watches over her body separates them conclusively. Love, 
the attempt to recapture the memory of another person, 
can never be wholly satisfactory. Physical possession, 
verbal communication — neither gets at the fundamental 
nature of experience. Marcel cannot know what Albertine 
remembers. Albertine does not know what she has for- 
gotten. Like the steeples of Martinville, the trees at Hudi- 
mesnil, the physical envelope of Albertine obscures her 



essential essence. Behind the window of her eyes, as be- 
hind the window at Montjouvain, memory may be per- 
forming an unspeakable act. Marcel has only to close his 
own to know how much can be hidden. 

Of the three kinds of memory, conscious, unconscious, 
and involuntary, only the latter is of supreme interest to 
Proust. In conscious memory, the mind searches for the 
relevant fact by an act of will. Unconscious memory is a 
repression of connections, usually painful, which the con- 
scious mind cannot dredge up as relevant fact. 

Involuntary memory is like unconscious memory with 
two differences: i) What stimulates it is immured in ob- 
jects that decant the original sensation by chance, and 
only if, luckily, we come across those objects again in later 
life. 2) It is not, like unconscious memory, an unearthing 
of the past, but a reliving of the past as the present. 

We may relive constantly and unwillingly an imcon- 
scious memory in our actions and psychological attitudes. 
In involuntary memory, we actually grasp the past as the 
present, as if time had literally stopped. No effort of will 
can achieve this since we have no control over the chance re- 
appearance of things. Unconscious memory predisposes us 
to repeat what we have experienced. Involuntary memory 
induces perception and is not a repetition but a revelation. 

It is difficult to separate unconscious memory from in- 
voluntary memory, but sleep, a paradox, helps to suggest 
the distinction: it is both the slave of habit and the liber- 



ator of memory. It leads us to time regained but is not 
time regained itself, for dreams are still under some form 
of conscious control — they are symbolic rather than real 
enactments. They allow us to remember what habit 
would have us forget, but we are permitted to do so only 
under the conditions of disguise. In involuntary memory, 
disguise is done away with; then becomes now in reality, 
not symbolically. 

But when we say "reality," wc must qualify again. 
Though the process of involuntary memory makes time 
past time present, and is not disguised like a dream, reality 
itself is merely the outer shell of a suprareality that is 
hidden from us. Albertine's body, the steeples, and the 
trees are apprehended by Marcel's senses. But they are 
all outer envelopes enclosing vital cryptograms to which 
he does not have the code. 

Involuntary memory, unlike unconscious memory, is 
miraculous. It is here that Proust parts with Freud and 
moves out of the world of psychology into the realm of 

We truly remember only what we have forgotten. Mem- 
ory is a human form of time. It is all we know of it, and 
when memory ceases, in the insane, in the dead, we may 
assume that time ceases for those particular organisms. 
Memory is, even more than habit, supremely paradoxical. 
Being a form of time, it, too, is both a "cause" and a 
"cure"; eliminating every link between the scenes it por- 



trays to us, it spares us the nonentities of our selves by 
allowing us to recollect the selves v^e were; but since wc 
are able only to recollect the past, it hurries us on to our 

The true power of involuntary memory lies not in what 
we remember but in the process of memory itself. It re- 
stores to us not only experiences of the past but the selves 
that experienced them. 

Hearing Vinteuil's "little phrase," Swann rediscovers a 
happiness he thought lost to him forever. To Swann, the 
"litde phrase" has emotional content. Losses are partly 
regained in romantic nostalgia. Marcel, describing Vin- 
teuiFs septet, discovers something quite different. Re- 
linquishing content, music is heard as pure form, the 
aesthetic equivalent of the temporal process. Eschewing 
every association, Vinteuil's music becomes not an inducer 
of memory but memory itself. We have, in Proust, the 
original concept of memory as a metaphor of time, not 
content; because of this, music is memory's most pertinent 
analogy. Form is apprehended as sensation; what is being 
formed is time. Marcel's involuntary memories satisfy a 
necessary condition: the common quality of being felt 
simultaneously at the actual moment and at a distance in 
time. This quality is the exact condition music demands 
of the listener; time connections make sound intelligible 
without any reference to the objective world. 

We contain within ourselves every lost moment of our 
lives. It is necessary to be made aware that they are lost 



before we can regain them. Music informs us of this loss 
without specifying the nature of what we have relin- 
quished. Like time, it tells us everything and nothing. 
Involuntary memories are forms of ecstasy, "mnemonic 
resurrections" that do not contain earlier experiences so 
much as new truths. Sensations of the past are not duplica- 
tions but sensation itself. Destroying the material world 
temporarily, they put in its place a world of revelation 
akin to the spiritual experiences of mystics, dissolving 
matter so thoroughly that 

... if the present scene had not been immediately victorious, I 
believe I should have fainted; for, during the instant that they 
last, these resurrections of the past are so complete that they 
do not merely oblige our eyes to become oblivious to the room 
before them . . . ; they also force our nostrils to inhale the 
air of places which are, however, far remote; constrain our 
will to choose between the various plans they lay before us; 
compel our entire being to believe itself surrounded by them, or 
at least to vacillate between them and the present scenes . . . 
Thus it was that what the being three and even four times 
revived within me had just enjoyed was perhaps, it is true, 
fragments of existence removed outside the realm of time, but 
this contemplation, although part of eternity, was transitory. 
(PR 200-201) 

There are eighteen occasions in Remembrance of Thifigs 
Past when Marcel has a memory — or an experience an- 
alagous to memory — significant enough to record. These 
occur in the following sequence: 



i) The madeleine dipped in tea restores Combray in its 
entirety. (SW 61-66) 

2) The steeples of Martinville suggest a hidden reality. 
(SW 257-261) 

3) The moldy smell of the water closet in the Champs- 
Elysees reminds Marcel of his Uncle Adolphe's room at 
Combray. (WBG I 93) 

4) The three trees at Hudimesnil awaken a memory 
Marcel cannot identify. (WBG II 20-23) 

5) Flowerless hawthorns at Balbec bring back his child- 
hood. (WBG II 309) 

6) A steam heater recently installed in Marcel's bed- 
room hiccoughs while he is thinking of Doncieres and, 
forever after, the sound is bound up with, or provokes 
memories of Doncieres. (GW II 51) 

7) Unbuttoning his boots, the living reality of his grand- 
mother is restored to Marcel long after her death. (CP I 

8) Twigs burning in his bedroom fireplace recall him- 
self as a boy and bring back memories of Combray and 
Doncieres. (CI 25-26) 

9) The cold weather releases memories of cafe concerts 
he used to go to on the first winter evenings and he sings 
snatches of the popular songs he heard at the time. (CI 

10) The smell of gasoline reminds him of excursions 
he took into the country. (C II 558-560) 

11) The rain brings back the scent of lilac, and this 



memory proliferates into others: the sun's rays on the 
balcony remind him of the pigeons in the Champs-Elysees ; 
the muffling of noise on summer mornings in Paris brings 
back the taste of cherries; the sound of the wind and the 
return of Easter revive his longing for Brittany and Venice. 
(SCG 86) 

12) Tying his scarf, Marcel remembers Albertine. 
(SCG 159) 

13) Badly paved streets leading to the new^ Guermantes 
mansion bring back the streets Marcel and Frangoise 
used to take to get to the Champs-Elysees. (PR 181-182) 

14) Stumbling on tv^o uneven paving stones in the 
courtyard of the Guermantes mansion, Marcel recovers 
his experience of Venice. (PR 191-192) 

15) The noise of a spoon rattling against a plate re- 
minds him of a raiWay worker on a train long ago who 
was testing the brakes. (PR 192-193) 

16) A starched white napkin restores Balbec and the 
sea. (PR 193-194) 

17) The sound of water pipes at the Guermantes' brings 
back the reality of the marine dining room at Balbec. 
(PR 199-200) 

18) Opening a copy of Frangois le champi in the Guer- 
mantes' hbrary, his childhood is restored. (PR 210-216) 

These memories are not all of die same order. The 
madeleine-Combray memory is the precursor to the 
others. The last six memories of The Past Recaptured 



make clear to Marcel the value of involuntary memory 
in general. The incidents of the steeples at Martinville and 
the trees at Hudimesnil intervene. They are of a special 
nature. Neither of these "involuntary memories" evokes 
concrete objects other than themselves, though the three 
tress might be said to echo the three steeples, for Proust 
links them together briefly in the text. Even so, the three 
trees v^ould be a memory of a memory, not the memory 
of something — not recovered sensations that lead to past, 
real v^orlds apprehended in the present, in the way the 
madeleine resurrects Combray from Marcel's unconscious. 
Images of trees appear notably twice again. Albertine 
takes her sketchbooks and disappears into the countryside, 
roaming among the small towns around Balbec. Marcel 
follows later in his car. Discussing these experiences, 
Marcel says: 

Of phantoms pursued, forgotten, sought afresh . . . these Balbec 
roads were full. When I diought that their trees, pear trees, 
tamarisks, would outlive me, I seemed to receive from them 
the warning to set myself to work at last, before the hour 
should strike of rest everlasdng. I left the carriage at Quette- 
holme. . . . (CP II 218) 

And, in a later episode. Marcel is again on a moving 
conveyance when he makes a similar connection between 
trees and writing. Coming back to Paris after the war, 
having spent an unspecified amount of time in a sanator- 
ium, his train stops for a few moments in a clearing. 



Marcel has given up the idea of becoming a writer, first, 
because he feels himself incompetent, and second, and 
worse, because of the "vanity and lie of literature." The 
last of all his ideals has turned out to be as spurious as all 
the others: 

. . . the train had halted out in the open country. The declin- 
ing sun shone halfway down the trunks of the trees that lined 
the railway track. "Trees," thought I to myself, "you have 
nothing more to say to me; my deadened heart no longer hears 
you. Behold me in the midst of nature's beauty and yet it is 
with indifference and ennui that my eyes take note of the line 
that separates the sun-bathed foliage from the shadowed trunk. 
If there was once a time when I was able to believe myself a 
poet, I now know that I am not. ... If I really had the soul 
of an artist, what pleasure would I not derive from the sight 
of that curtain of trees lighted by the declining sun, and in 
those little flowers growing along the roadbed and raising their 
heads almost to the step of the railway carriage, so near that I 
could count their petals, but I shall take good heed not to de- 
scribe their colour, for who can hope to convey to another a 
pleasure he has not himself felt? A little later it was with the 
same indifference that I noted the gold and orange disks with 
which the same setting sun riddled the windows of a house 
... (PR 177-178) 

The steeples of Martinville and the trees of Hudimesnil 
are not memories at all but premonitions. They contain a 
hidden future as memories contain a hidden past. This 
distinction has been made for us on a more human level 
earlier. On a telephone call from Doncieres to Paris, 



Marcel hears his grandmother's voice and has a premoni- 
tion of her death. The sweetness of her voice, its isolation 
from the play of emotions on her face suddenly fills him 
v^ith the terror of her nonexistence. The separation of 
the moment must, in the future, be permanent. It is this 
telephone call that sends him back to Paris to see her. 
And a year after her death, when he feels he has almost 
forgotten her, he goes back to the Balbec hotel for his 
second visit. Bending over to take off his boots — a task 
his grandmother had performed for him on the very first 
night they had spent at the hotel — the lost reality of his 
grandmother wells up inside him, filling his eyes with 
tears. She has come truly alive for him for the first time 
since her death. Painfully, her existence within him tells 
him that they are eternally separated. 

The steeples and the trees are precursors of forms that 
do not yet have a material existence — forms rather than 
content in the same way that Vinteuil's septet differs 
from his sonata in the respective hearings of Marcel and 
Swann. Swann experiences emotions form sets free; 
Marcel experiences the form as an emotion. The distinc- 
tion is crucial, for Marcel is an artist and Swann is not. 

The steeples and the trees are signposts that hold in 
precipitation elements that are later to solidify. They con- 
tain a specific reality of the future. It will be the writing of 
Remembrance of Things Past in which the process of 
discovering their meaning will be twofold : in the writing 
of the book as an act, and in the content of the book 



which explains how that act came into being. The essay 
Marcel wrote on the steeples of Martinville and left in 
the hamper of Dr. Percepied's carriage is to be brought 
out and expanded. The steeples and the trees are secret 
knowledge that Marcel cannot bring to life, though he 
glimpses the secret and the way to discover it almost 
simultaneously. At the time, that glimpse is not yet the 
revelation it will become. Just as he contains lost time 
within himself, so the steeples and the trees are vessels of 
concealment; their confined messages will be released 
only when Marcel understands the true nature of his 
vocation. They are postdated numens. Marcel experiences 
on each of these occasions something he does not yet 
consciously know and which does not yet exist — ^his 
book, which is his life — nonexistent in fact but buried 
within himself. 

The steeples and the trees burst open in light. As they 
gallop away and toward him, his book is still germinating 
in the dark. 


VI : The Way 

"- . . the only true paradise is always the paradise we 
have lost . . ." 

(PR 195) 


N A VISIT to Tansonville to spend some time with 
Gilberte, now Mme. de Saint-Loup, Marcel finds the early 
scenes of his childhood unevocative, without poetry or 
savor. The past is a dead crumb, the present lisdess, the 
future a predictable series of stale repetitions. By the time 
Marcel attends the final party at the Princesse de Guer- 
mantes'j life has proved to be hopeless. Like Swann, he has 



led a fruitless pilgrimage. He has survived the destructive- 
ness of love, the blandishments of society — but to vv^hat 
purpose? Even literature seems false, the desire for im- 
mortality vain, in both senses. The only future event of 
significance on his calendar is his ow^n death. 

Tv^o kinds of revelation av^ait him. The first is literary. 
Going through an unpublished diary of the Goncourts' 
(the text of this is a Goncourt parody-pastiche concocted 
by Proust), he comes upon a description of the Verdurin 
"clan." It is naive and journalistic, but, like the steeples 
and the trees, has an important secret message. Even lives 
as stupid and shallov^ as the Verdurins' can be recorded 
and add something to the storehouse of posterity. It is 
from Saint-Simon, after all, that Marcel has learned of 
life at Versailles. Moreover, reading these social mirrorings 
of life, he becomes aw^are of underlying truths that do 
not seem to be available to the Goncourts. Marcel holds 
these truths v^^ithin himself; he does not yet know^ they 
are usable. 

Further revelations are to come, and they are the most 
important moments, thematically, in Proust's novel. At 
the climactic apex of his book, he has a series of involun- 
tary memories that flood into his being at the Guermantes' 
final party. The v^hole cast is about to be brought onstage, 
rattling with death. Were it not for the experience Marcel 
undergoes just prior to and during it, he would simply be 
another skeleton delivering his funeral oration in a spray 
of gossip. 



The first involuntary memory occurs while Marcel is 
again in motion and in a carriage. The streets leading to 
the Guermantes' mansion disappear; he has the sensation 
that he is going to the Champs-Elysees with Frangoise. 
Those past streets crowd out the present ones. Getting 
out of the carriage in the courtyard, he stumbles on two 
uneven paving stones. His body is electrified by a former 
self; the uneven paving stones restore Venice, the sensibil- 
ity that experienced Venice. The sensation that he had 
once felt stepping on two uneven slabs in the Baptistry of 
St. Mark, repeated in this moment, selects the Venice days 
out of the decades of time. Entering a boudoir-library to 
await the conclusion of a piece of music that is being 
played, he hears a spoon knock against a plate carried by 
a servant. Marcel instantly becomes aware of a former 
experience submerging the present — the sound of the 
hammer of a railway worker who once long ago tested 
the brakes on a train Marcel was riding to Paris. The train 
had stopped in a clearing. This sound evokes the following: 

The same kind of felicity as I had received from the uneven 
paving stones now came over me . . . what seemed to me so 
delightful was the very row of trees which I had found it 
wearisome to study and describe . . . (PR 192-193) 

A waiter brings some cakes and a glass of orangeade to 
Marcel in the library. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, its 
starched whiteness brings back what seems his entire 
knowledge of Balbec and the sea. The napkin has exactly 



the same kind of starchiness as the one with which he had 
attempted to dry himself before the window the first 
day of his arrival at Balbec. Within its folds, a green-blue 
ocean spreads its plumage like a peacock tail. Soon after, 
the sound of water pipes makes the entire dining room of 
the Balbec hotel rise up from the past. And, opening a 
copy of Frangois le champi in the library, the very book 
his mother read to him while he was falling asleep in his 
Combray bedroom, his childhood is revived. 

An important undercurrent ties these involuntary mem- 
ories together. They are all memories of journeys or 
places. The very distinction Marcel made earlier between 
"the name" and "the place" is here proved true on an 
entirely different level. We see now why a particular 
class of involuntary memories occurred while Marcel was 
in motion. Each was transfigured by the velocity of the 
future. Places — Combray, Balbec, Doncieres, Paris, and 
Venice — are no longer to be found on any meaningful 
map except the one waiting to be unfurled within Marcel. 
These extratemporal moments are true revelations and 
offer us a profound sense of renewal simply because they 
have been experienced before. The only true paradise 
is always the paradise we have lost. Time lost is about to 
be regained in the writing of the novel. The sparks along 
the internal, wired connections of his nerves can be 
used to rekindle all the worlds they have ever lit: 

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the 
people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, 



alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, 
more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things re- 
main poised a long time, like souls . . . and bear unfaltering, 
in the tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the 
vast structure of recollection. (SW 65) 

We have just read, of course, the very work Marcel is 
about to undertake. Like Finnegans Wa\e, Remembrance 
of Things Past is its own self-sealing device. Circular in 
structure, its end leads us back to its beginning. The word 
"time" embedded in the first sentence of the book rings 
out grandly as the last word of the novel and brings us 
once again to where we started. The circle is not on a 
plane but exists in three — or to be true to Proust's inten- 
tions, four — dimensions. His novel is architectural rather 
than linear, like the church of Saint Hilaire at Combray 
which, conquering location by physical mass, derives 
its energy from the epochs of time that have seeped into 
its very cells. The material church, absorbing time, can 
no longer be divorced from it. Proust's book is such a 
monument. Time is a substance as well as a process and 
all things are immersed in it. 

Memory exists outside of time. The beautiful girls at 
Balbec are not necessarily the hideous, fat dowagers across 
the room, made monstrous by the years. Their youth 
dwells, as does our own, within ourselves. It has merely 
to be recaptured from time where it exists as an eternal 

The regaining of time is the true quest of mankind. An 



instant freed from the order of time in the individual is 
man liberated from the same order. Time, more deceptive 
even than memory, can prevent us from knov^ing this. We 
assume chronology is succession. The young Marcel v^ait- 
ing in his bedroom for his mother to kiss him good night 
might easily have been forgotten. Yet, as Proust show^s 
us, he holds the magic lantern that illuminates everything. 
We are taken back to Combray at this final party by 
means other than memory. Marcel meets, for the first 
time. Mile, de Saint-Loup, the daughter of Gilberte and 
Saint-Loup. She embodies the two early landscapes of 
himself. On his visit to Tansonville to see Gilberte, Marcel 
has had an inkling of this. He discovers in old age that 
by taking a shortcut it is possible to get from Swann's 
way to the Guermantes w^ay. The separated kingdoms of 
his boyhood vv^ere a united empire always. In the person 
of Mile, de Saint-Loup, Swann's way and the Guermantes 
way become one. 

Marcel exhausts more than the illusions of love and 
society; he exhausts the illusion of personality. It is one 
thing to see that the physical surface of people and things 
is a delusion; it is quite another to see that, beyond the 
outwardly perceptible, we come upon a world equally 
illusory. Nothing exists until it is connected by memory 
to a former experience; the connection between two 
nonrealities gives them an existence. A starched napkin 
has no meaning in itself; Balbec and the sea are forgettable. 



In the linkage of the two, Balbec and the sea are resur- 

Love is a disease of the ideal but of enormous value 
because it informs us of the ideal. Without Albertine, 
there would be no Remembrance of Things Past. Simi- 
larly, sensation is valuable though mortal. It leads us to 
where immortality may be. Only intelligence is under 
attack in Proust as a mode of perception. But as only 
those people who have loved can speak of it as a delusion 
with authority, it is only through intelligence that one 
has the privilege of categorizing it. Explaining everything, 
Proust creates a universe that does not exclude the in- 

Proust is the greatest of disenchanters. But only because 
he was so greatly enchanted. Remembrance of Things Past 
is a gigantic disappearing act in which the magician 
vanishes along with his magic in the service of illusion. He 
does so to prove to us that the illusory is real. By the time 
we reach the end of Remembrance of Things Past, Swann 
and the Duchesse de Guermantes, upon whom so much 
time and elucidation have been expended, are revealed at 
last for what they are. Two human beings in the boyhood 
of Marcel Proust he once conceived of as gods. Now the 
true god, the writer, paying homage to the deities of his 
childhood, secreting their lives from within himself, 
confers upon them a genuine immortality. 

[ 111 ] 


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